Illustration: Michael Whitehead

Illustration: Michael Whitehead

There is no such thing as bad language any more. In a film now in our cinemas, the wonderful Maggie Smith, playing the part of an ultimate paragon of ladyness, tells three of her co-actors to f--- off. The effect on one of those so addressed, Billy Connolly, was not noticeable, but Tom Courtenay raised an ironic eyebrow while Pauline Collins reeled in horror; in the polite Manuka cinema, which does not show films that attract anyone under 50, there was a noticeable intake of breath, including my own.

But the sad truth is that, if one excepts those who watch afternoon films at Manuka, most people are no longer shocked by bad language. Psychologists have even suggested that it can be beneficial: if you bang your head when you are under the house, for example, they tell us that an expletive helps to relieve stress. This shows how out of touch psychologists are because the reason you banged your head was because someone - mentioning no names - had left the laundry hanging there to dry.

It is true that when you finally get to within 10 metres of the green, only to top your little pitch-and-run, it may help to say a rude word under your breath. However, in this case, a word beginning with 's' is more appropriate, what we call the s-word. At the Murrumbidgee course, where they have ducks to provide large black quantities of the material suggested by the s-word, it comes readily to mind. The f-word should not be so used because it has no relevance to golf if one can forget about the former world No. 1.

It is true that the s-word lacks the sophistication and the multilingual etymology of the f-word, which has the added advantage that it can be employed as verb, past participle (-ed), present participle (-ing), noun, interjection or several other parts of speech. Nowadays, however, it tends to be used mostly as a filler by people with limited vocabulary and in books written by Roddy Doyle.

There is a word that is sometimes confused with the f-word, in which the broad 'u' is replaced by the slender 'e' and has a different meaning altogether. It is much used by Irish people and as such I feel qualified to write about it. It means to steal or to nick and should be regarded almost respectable like bloody or bastard in this country. By the way, the eloquent Irish, always sensitive to onomatopoeia, add an extra 'e' to the s-word, which makes it more expressive, properly evocative of wet farmyards in winter.

I believe that much bad language is due to laziness, an inability to think up a good insult. When someone cuts in front of you to take your parking spot, you should not drive around the parking lot fuming in sentences full of f and s-words. Instead you should calm down and ask yourself what Winston Churchill or Paul Keating would say. You could even combine the two of them: ''Madam, I may be drunk, but you are all tip and no iceberg.''

There is now an iPhone app that provides Keating mal mots to suit every occasion. Instead of referring to the full-back of your local team as a f---ing waste of space, how much more interesting to describe him as a ''dessicated coconut'' or compare him to ''a lizard on a rock - alive but looking dead''. It may be difficult to think up one on the spur of the moment, safely surrounded by hundreds of supporters who agree with you, so the app could be very useful.

It should be pointed out that the app uses an algorithm that searches through various Keatingisms and combines them in a way that it - the algorithm - thinks works well. The result can be off-putting and may not always be as intended. The former prime minister once described the opposition leader as ''a gutless spiv, an intellectual rust bucket''. Try as you may to combine those words in a different way to form some other meaning, it would be difficult to imagine an improvement on the Keating original. The same applies to his retort to an honourable member from Western Australia: ''You boxhead, you are flat out counting past 10.''

I imagine the algorithm might come up with something like ''you gutless boxhead, you flat-out spiv counting past rust buckets'' but that hardly improves on PJK. Still, at 99c, you can't say it is daylight robbery, and to return to my original complaint about bad language, it might even replace the f and s-words, with or without an 'e'.

>> Frank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.