[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 5, 2021.]
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? We wish we knew. But you’re right – it’s everywhere. If we had to hazard a guess, we’d say it was influenced by (or has a nose of) the world of wine reviewing.
A search with Google’s Ngram view shows that occurrences of “robust” in digitized books spiked in the late 1970s and rose sharply, peaking around 2000.
It’s sad to see a sturdy old word like “robust” become wimpy from overuse. When it entered English in the late 1400s it meant “strong and hardy; strongly and solidly built, sturdy; healthy,” to cite the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition.
The adjective took on other meanings in the 16th through 19th centuries, according to the OED, with published references for a things like “robust title of occupancy,” “robust language,” “robust exercises,” as well as colors, sounds, tastes, and smells described as “robust.”
The first OED citation for the word used in a culinary sense is from a 19th-century article about (you guessed it) wine: “The Tintara is a robust, sustaining wine” (The Times, London, April 17, 1873).
Applied to food or drink, Oxford says, “robust” means “having a strong taste or smell; (esp. of wine) full-bodied, rich.” And more generally, the adjective can designate “such a taste or smell.”
The dictionary’s later examples of “robust” tastes and smells refer to “robust” fruit, cheese, cooking aromas, perfumes, and again wine: “A cassoulet needs no accompaniment, save a robust and artisanal red wine” (from The River Cottage Meat Book, 2004, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall).
As for its origins, English inherited the word “robust,” first recorded in 1490, from the Latin robustus, meaning strong, hardy, or made of oak. And since healthy, robust oaks are leafy, this brings us to your second bugbear.
We’re sorry to hear that you feel “leafy” is now being used as a slap at the suburbs. We don’t see it as a put-down, but rather as further evidence that reporters are running out of adjectives for describing suburbia.
The word “leaf” itself is very, very old, dating from Old English writing of around the year 850, according to the OED.
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 “autumn,” the season originally known as the “fall of the leaf”)?
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