Mind your language

‘Robust’, busted

What to do about one of the most overused words in today’s media

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

‘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.

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  • gram64

    Have for many years loathed the use of ‘robust’ in politicspeak and officialese. You can be sure that in fact it is a word intended to cover up ‘weak’, ‘inefficient’, ‘dilatory’, ‘spineless’, ‘ineffectual’, ‘incompetent’, ‘clueless’, and other such realities.

  • kentgeordie

    Robust isn’t as bad as vibrant, pivotal, sustainable, iconic and appropriate.

    • mumble

      But fit for purpose, yes?

  • Phil T Tipp
    • Uncle Frank

      When I was at primary school all my female teachers were robust.

  • Roy

    How about expert and skilled. Since all pilots who have crashed their plane are undoubtedly this. All ships captains who run aground are this. All major battles are lost because the generals are this. When all said and done it doesn’t mean a thing. Worse of course are our very own leadership people, who care not what they lead us into. The whole nation can fall disastrously into a quicksand due to the expert and skilled manipulation of the clots in-charge.

  • This is a bit like Austen’s discussion of ‘nice’, though a bit less justified, in my view.

    Personally I like term ‘rock-ribbed’ as in ‘rock-ribbed republican’.

  • Sininen

    I remember when I only used to hear that word in certain American coffee ads.

  • Rex

    Hellelujah! At last someone else who cannot stand the over-used bland political, media and corporate buzz word ‘robust’! I thought it was only me it was driving insane!
    Indeed if you filter google search results for the word and restrict it to pre 2009 most of the results are for mathematics, statistic analysis, ‘sciencey’ stuff and ‘computery’ things. In the last few years you get dictionary definitions popping up for the word online and a few businesses but it wasn’t until David Cameron used it in late 2009 in a public comment about the police in London that it first entered the popular use it now enjoys. I always blamed him for this, and I was right… filter google results by year from 2009 onwards and you see it slowly popping up more and more in quotes from government officials, then a year or so later in 2011 Cameron does it again and then the media catches on and runs with it, especially the BBC. We get a sportsman using it, financial commentators and finally everyone is using the word to trying sound more like officials and spokespeople. The thing that’s most irritation though is when it’s a poor choice of word to use, when there are many other words that are better suited to what the person quoted is trying to say. This suggests a copycat mentality of trying to fit in or to sound important, but it simply sounds insincere and childlike. Let’s try using language more appropriately everyone please! Our standards are slipping badly!

    • joeybot

      No, our standards are great fart