The Grammarphobia Blog

Leaf stricken

Q: Excuse me for inflicting my current bugbears – “robust” and “leafy.” Everything is “robust”: speeches, economies, food, campaign itineraries, etc. Very tired! As for “leafy,” every time someone is murdered in the suburbs, the news media mention the “leafy streets.” In the city, the victim is just murdered. I see this as a putdown – a suggestion that suburbanites are rubes for thinking they’re safe.

A: Where did this infatuation with “robust” come from? I wish I knew. But you’re right – it’s everywhere. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it comes from (or has a nose of) the world of wine reviewing.

It’s sad to see a sturdy old word like “robust” become wimpy from overuse. When it entered English in the 16th century, it meant (as it does today) strong and hardy.

The adjective began taking on figurative meanings in the 18th and 19th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, with published references for a “robust title of occupancy,” a “robust language,” and so on.

The first OED citation for the word used in a culinary sense is from a 1961 magazine article that refers to (you guessed it) wine: “There are also Spanish and Portuguese wines that go well with strongly flavoured food. The robust Spanish Chablis, the Rioja Burgundy, and the Portuguese Vila Real are examples.”

We got the word “robust” from the Latin robustus, meaning strong, hardy, or made of oak, which brings us to your second bugbear.

I’m sad to hear that you feel “leafy” is now being used as a slap at the suburbs. The word “leaf” itself is very, very old, dating from around the year 850, according to the OED. In fact the Old English of the first citation is so old that it would look like gibberish to most readers of this blog.

The adjective “leafy” first appeared in the mid-1500s. Here’s a 1697 citation from Dryden: “Soft Whispers run along the leafy Woods.” Nothing pejorative about that! What’s not to like about leaves (aside from having to rake them in the autumn)?

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.