‘Heart of Oak are our ships, Jolly Tars are our men,’ shouted my husband unconvincingly. He has taken to doing this every time someone on air says robust, and that is pretty often.
On this occasion it was someone from the Arts Council rambling on about business plans and governance being robust enough to ensure that organisations are sustainable. Anything else might have been adjudged robust: Mrs Merkel, examination procedures, animal welfare rules, IT systems. It’s an all-purpose word of approval and thus often on the lips of politicians. The overuse of robust robs their speech of all conviction and drives listeners to distraction, even if few are provoked into singing to William Boyce’s stirring tune, like my husband.
Robustness was once a sort of rugby-playing quality. Robust people were outdoor types, robust wines full-bodied. Then, in the 1950s, statisticians began to employ it of tests that were insensitive to extraneous factors. Computing folk joined in 20 or 30 years later by applying robust to programs less likely to fail. Now, the dozens of passwords that we are required to have, to pay the gas bill or book a theatre ticket, are all expected to be robust.
At the end of 2013, Vanessa Barford asked in the BBC News Magazine (an online entity): ‘Is robust robust enough to stick around in 2014?’ That was the same moment at which selfie became tiresomely prevalent. Since then we have acquired the selfie stick, and robust hasn’t weakened.
It was a good word in its place. Robust is related to robur, which specifies the English oak, Quercus robur, as my husband’s outbursts were meant to suggest. In Latin, robur means equally ‘oak’ or ‘strength’. It derives from the same Indo-European base as the English red and the Latin rufus and ruber. This root gave us rust and ruddy, the French rouge and the Czechs rudy.
In most contexts where power-talkers overuse it, any emphatic qualification does just as well, such as jolly good: a jolly good system, a jolly good examination, a jolly good economic recovery. Or perhaps politicians tempted to say robust in the studio might instead honk a horn. That would wake up listeners to Today.