Call it subliminal messaging, but the word that everyone would like to attach to the phrase "economic recovery" is instead hitched to everything but. It describes the Treasury Department's effort to repair its image, the Pentagon's investigation of WikiLeaks.
Never mind that politicians use robust when the reality is the opposite. The space shuttle is being mothballed, but Florida Sen. Bill Nelson talks about the robust space program. Budget cuts may result in furloughs for federal meat inspectors, but the Food and Drug Administration promises robust food safety controls nevertheless. President Barack Obama may think the word sums up his oil-drilling policy, but Louisiana lawmakers beg to differ.
Words and phrases become trendy for no special reason. A few years back, "cobbled" achieved such overuse in Washington, it seemed as if the national media were covering the shoe industry.
The Enron accounting fraud scandal of 2001 spawned the verb "to enronize," although it faded, alas, before it could have been put to good use in the financial meltdown of 2008. As for the current adjective of choice, what role wishful thinking played after two years of lean times is anyone's guess.
"This sort of thing happens in language all the time," said Naomi Baron, a linguistics professor at American University in Washington. "Given the mass media and the public's desire to reach for the next new thing, it's not surprising."
As words become more popular, their use grows logarithmically. For proof, look no further than Charlie Sheen's gabfest in what has been described as his Self-Immolation World Tour. If some of his choicest verbiage achieves fad status, you can credit Sheen's Twitter account, which gained a million followers in a 24-hour period, setting a Twitter record. "Tiger blood," Sheen's most descriptive, if unclear phrase, now produces 14 million hits on Google.
With such competition, robust hardly seems destined to celebrity-hood. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to the 14th century, descending from middle French.
That bit of history might deter the manliest of the capital city's inhabitants from employing the word, certainly the lawmakers who scorned french fries during the Iraq War or former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who denounced Europe's "chocolate-making countries" for their opposition to the invasion.
But Allan Metcalf, an English professor at McMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and author of "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word," is reassuring on that point.
"It's not a wishy-washy word. It comes from French, but it's not a French word like 'filet,' " he said. "It not only means strong and sturdy, it sounds strong and sturdy."
And, it turns out, robust is also a very flexible word. Originally, robust described the health and condition of animals. Over time, the definition expanded to include other kinds of sturdiness -- robust voices, colors, food and drink. It wasn't a long leap to apply robust to markets and economics.
These days, it has been used to describe Todd Palin's role as "shadow governor" during his wife's abbreviated tenure at Alaska's helm, even Natalie Portman's appearance at the Oscars.
That timing coincides with the marketing of computer software, as the definition evolved again and added another meaning: "unlikely to fail." (The word is also commonly used in statistical research; as statistical arguments have permeated nearly every field in the past decade, its use has no doubt picked up.)
The downside of becoming too trendy is to become cliche. The advertising industry seems to have noticed the robust use of robust, even if the politicians haven't. Robust wine is one thing, but popcorn and makeup? The word has worked its way onto marketing lists of buzzwords to avoid.
George Tannenbaum, an ad man with his own blog (Ad Aged) tired of robust three years ago. "I am so nauseated by the use of the word..." he posted. "Dear boys and girls, there are other words out there. Robust is over-used, hackneyed and a cliche."
Ben Zimmer, executive producer at the Visual Thesaurus, was looking into Sheenisms when I caught up with him, having just coined Sheenenfreude to describe the fascination with the actor's ravings.
Zimmer chairs the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, whose members vote for the best word, new or old, every fall. In 2009, the members picked "tweet," and in 2008, "bailout" stole the show. For 2010, they chose "app," a word that had been around for quite a while but needed a boost from Apple to capture society's attention.
Robust doesn't stand a chance to ever make the list, Zimmer said. But he sees its irresistible political appeal. "The sound of it, the accent on the second syllable fits well into rhetoric," he said. But mostly, it's the "positive connotations relating to thriving economies and strength that make it particularly tempting to use."
Especially when things aren't.