2015.09.25 "That was bloody brilliant!"

It was in 2001 and followers of the Hogwart's students were enjoying the first installment of the movie when a gasp filled the theater.

Ron Weasley had just assessed Professor McGonagall's shapeshifting from a cat into a human being: "That was bloody brilliant!"

Frankly, I also think such a trick would be bloody brilliant. By having British friends I knew that this was not such an awful swear as it would seem, judging from the collective intake of breath among the movie watching parents in Mountain View, CA. (Naturally, the kids in the audience were ecstatic.)

Swearing in a foreign language always is different than swearing in your mother tongue. Evidently, even if your mother tongue is almost identical to what is spoken locally.

One reason is that our parents usually are not around to wash our mouths with soap - not that my parents ever did that. We have a different emotional relationship with words that have gotten us into trouble when we demonstrated our knowledge of them as young children. I still find the Danish equivalent much more crass than the foreign versions of basically any of these terms.

Back in our backpacking youth, a friend had gotten into an argument with some guys on the train station in Marseille. Her expletive on telling them to shut up was extremely offensive, knives were drawn, and she got out of the station ever so fast.

Which leads to another reason swearing in another language is different: We might not have an accurate assessment of how severe the various colorful phrases may be to the natives - or to even recognize foreign vocabulary as swears.

My French teacher in high school entertained us with a charming story of how she had learned a rule for when "c" is to be pronounced "k" in French. Not being able to find the words in the dictionary, she had asked a French colleague on a bus tour in France what the words meant. With a deep blush the colleague had relayed several words for body parts and excrement - and my classmates would all have been able to tell my backpacking friend why one should not have used that specific phrase when arguing with Frenchmen. Oops!

So I was delighted when I got a chance to read a paper on how this subject can also be a challenge to Americans listening to British English or to Brits listening to American English.

Jean-Marc Dewaele, a professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at University of London, has published a research paper describing a survey in which over 600 Americans and over 600 Brits evaluated their knowledge, use, and the severity of 30 English expletives. (Unfortunately, bloody was not among the words.)

Apparently, the Americans are at times somewhat confused about the colorful language. e.g. daft, thick, or nutter, expressed by their European cousins. Likewise, Brits are not quite as sure how to react to wacko, jerk, or loser.

I have on purpose stayed with milder and better known phrases above while admitting that even my repertoire now has been somewhat expanded, should I feel the need for speaking my mind.

The paper also disclosed that people more often swear among friends than in front of family, colleagues, or strangers. Even more often than when they are alone. (Or at least that is what they say when asked.)

As you can imagine, it was quite entertaining to read eloquent but dry academic language describing this topic - which would have been impossible to describe in a newspaper or read aloud on public television: "Americans don't feel as confident as the Brits about the use of beep, beep or beeeep!!!"

By the way, this really isn't - and never was - French.

In Kate Fox' book "Watching the English," she writes that swearing is mainly done by members of the working class or by the very upper class. The British middle class supposedly doesn't swear as much.

If you are not likely to be taken for the landed gentry - or are acting in a Die Hard movie - monitoring this part of your vocabulary is probably a good idea. Particularly if you only sort of know what you are saying.