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A 'More Robust' Read Out

On The Phrase That's Sweeping New Orleans

Perhaps it was there along. After all, we've read enough wine bottles in this town to be very familiar with most common flowery descriptors. The day before it really hit us, we listened to the essence of this phrase at the mayor's State of the City, and the word just floated right on by.

But, suddenly, "robust" was there all the time. And, as if announcing itself weren't enough, there was more attached to it.

All of the zones, bounties, Menckens and even Picayunes keep the local language lively. But we're not as used to public relations lingo, so "more robust" stuck out like the brightly-colored shotguns against the gathering storm clouds.When the phrase appeared, the gray was not in the heavens, but the lady. As the night of May 23 ticked on toward a close, New Orleans clicked over to the New York Times to read that her daily newspaper was unlikely to be daily any longer. As morning dawned, outrage was in full sputter, and an official answer was required from the overlords that control the Times-Picayune themselves. So, New Orleans put on her sunglasses and clicked over to the then-yellow siren,, to find out if this screed in our national paper of record had any merit. After all, this great American outpost cannot be expected to trust a bunch of New Yorkers with our news, and there it was. Most readers might have been expecting an explanation of why there would be less. But in the world of Advance Publications, there was not less.


"With a reduced printing schedule starting in the fall, Amoss said, plans call for the Wednesday, Friday and Sunday editions of The Times-Picayune to be in many ways more robust than each of the daily newspapers is currently. They will contain a richer and deeper news, sports and entertainment report, as well as a full week's worth of features such as society coverage, puzzles and comics.


A full week's worth of printed news (and puzzles!) will still be coming, just not every day of the week. So, don't worry, we were told, it will be the same. Even if this description turns out to be complete hog's saliva, we would at least have been placated with the greatest of all Crescent City reassurances: Nothing will change.


But those two words denied the New Orleans metro area's faithful subscribers even that peace of mind. Things would be bigger and better, no matter how many experienced staff members were separated from the company and offered severance packages. Things would be more robust.


According to our handy etymology dictionary, robust dates to the 1540s, derived from the Latin robustus, meaning "strong and hardy." An original derivation was "oaken," from robur. and "a special kind of oak" from "ruber." The latter may have to do with another rubber tree plant, yet the intention is clear. Something that is robust stands the test of time, and it stands tall. We're then lead to conclude that more robust is even heartier, and even taller. Adding emphasis only makes those zealots' case seem weaker. And, indeed, repetition is only a reminder that we are hardier.


At first, the phrase appeared to be a simple nugget of PRspeak, designed for the reader to glance over, gain a feeling of reassurance and move on. Trouble was, it kept appearing.


Over the next week, this little phrase seemed to emerge as the public face of an internal conversation between a certain local class of people who are the recipients of fierce skepticism. Far from the average "synergy" or "win-win," "more robust" is called upon for a very specific public relations purpose. Silencing the doubters is central to its purpose, for certain. But there are doubters who are more dogged than the average skeptic. They are zealots who will never be convinced and "more robust" is made to eviscerate their thoughts. Those two words were forced into public view by that meddling Media Decoder, but now they were everywhere.


After the phrase was tossed around the blogosphere as the momentary moniker of irony, it appeared in the newspaper again a week later.



"Though forecasters this year have predicted fewer hurricanes than normal and experts say the region's flood-protection infrastructure has never been more robust, residents across the New Orleans area are being encouraged to take stock of their provisions and review their evacuation plans in preparation for the six-month hurricane season that begins Friday."



These were the words of reporter Michelle Krupa, so perhaps she was in on the joke. We left it aside until, in the columns of this very NOLA Defender, it reared its head again.


"With a 26ft. tall surge barrier, [Army Corps of Engineers official Mike] Stack said that the current [hurricane] protections are “stronger and more robust,” than they were in 2005."


Peculiar, then, that the word pairing in question should come as a descriptor of the levees - a similar bedrock of New Orleans attracting critics that will not rest until every seepage point is plugged, and every type of conceivable size of storm is defended.


Leaving aside the obvious conspiracy theory about the Newhouses and the Corps being in league (Si Newhouse undoubtedly sits in the Death Star, but he doesn't have all the systems in line),  maybe we were just seeing things. Yet, as if responding in refrain, it appeared yet again in the Times-Picayune.


"Rising hotel room rates reflect robust rebound in New Orleans"


The lack of "more" might indicate there are fewer naysayers to shout down, but as writers who know the sting of breaking apart good alliteration, the intention behind the omission probably leaned toward the poetic.


 The first quotation in the story that follows comes from Tod Chambers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel & Lodging Association. That group was due to get money from the Hospitality Zone, a proposed taxing district that died in the legislature after citizen outrage similar to that which is bubbling up around the Times-Picayune cuts became too much for those who wanted to cling to their unelected board to bare. Reminding everyone about the strength of the market share is important, even if the public-private partnership tanked.


After the week's seven newspapers are cut to three, and that print edition announcing a focus on digital takes its place on top of "Amen!", it's possible that robust will fade back in with the rest of the PR babble that flies at us constantly. But the phrase that announces itself is indeed a special kind of phrase. We're only left to speculate how it could've brought salvation to some of our politicians now sitting in a luxury cell, or even the ones who aren't.


Even without any cranes to show for it, Ray Nagin and Ed Blakeley would have jumped at the chance to tout their more robust recovery. That robe wouldn't have looked so wrinkled if Louis Marcotte III would've described a more robust bail bonds enterprise. And, surely, those national cameras could have looked the other way if Bill Jefferson described that Andrea simply demanded a more robust stockpile in the freezer.

As our linguistic forebears recognized, "oaken" and "wooden" occupy completely different sections of the fustian forest.






I'm not representing Library

I'm not representing Library Chronicles, just a reader of the blog, but LC has 22 times commented on robust since May 27th. Go check it out.

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