23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 12

Mind your language

I KNEW someone would help. Mr Rob McWhirter from Guildford writes to tell me that the most notorious exponent of the word sweet in the context "jaminy, lucky-day" is the foul-mouthed juvenile delinquent Eric Cartman from South Park'. I can make out very little of what is said on South Park, both because of the strangulated tones of the dubbers and because my television has a cheap and muzzy loudspeaker. But I am glad to learn that Cartman has been instrumental in the propagation of sweet in its new sense. I shall never at my age be able to use it without irony, just as I could never use cool in its new everyday application.

And on the matter of the adjective name by which one describes insipid food, Dr C.L. Forbes sends me a transcription of a complaint made by undergraduates of Clare College, Cambridge, about food in hall in 1656, under the wicked Commonwealth. Dr Forbes sensibly suggests that I confer with my good neighbour Peter Jones, for the Latin is not to me transparent. I shall do so, but in the meantime here is the main thrust of their petition:

Saepe multumque aegre tulimus panes (frumenti pretio jam diu extenuato, et diminuto) usque adeo parvos, cervisiam tenuem admodem, nee satis coctam. carnern insipidam, subrancidam, a coquo male tractatam, ct id genus alia quam plurima. Expectavimus in dies mutationem in melius, frustra vero.

One gets the general drift: they don't like the food and there isn't much of it, and the beer is watered down and, as for the meat, the cook mistreats it and it is insipidam and subrancidam. Presumably it wasn't both at the same time, for if meat is almost stinking you could hardly call it tasteless. I wonder if their hopes were again frustrated.

On another culinary tack, P.J.W. Rowell writes to say that in Cairo there is a pale green, hard cooking cheese called gibna rumi, the rumi bit meaning 'Greek', not 'Roman'. This is a nicely historical piece of semantics, for Constantine had in 324 made his eastern capital the 'new Rome', and the Greekspeaking part of the Roman empire survived long after the barbarian transformation of the western part. To the Arabs the people of Constantinople remained Romans. Even now the country with the rusty steelworks calls itself Romania (and, indeed, its language descends from Latin). I shouldn't be surprised if in Cairo we Europeans were still called Franks, though whether our cheese has left a mark, I have no inkling. Dot Wordsworth