Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Long ago in southern Europe, woodcutters prized a special kind of oak tree that had a reddish heartwood. (Heartwood is the strong, denser, less porous center wood that is no longer living.) To name this type of wood, they reached back to their wood for “red,” which in Latin is ruber. They called the wood robus.
This robus wood was known for its strength and sturdiness, and it invited metaphorical comparisons. Something that was made of oak — what we would call oaken today — was called robustus. And if you exhibited the characteristics of an oak — strength, sturdiness, steadfastness — you might also be called robustus, a word which, by the early 1500s, had become the English word robust.
The more elaborate robustious also appeared in English at around the same time, though its meaning veered toward “rough, violent, rude” — closer to rambunctious than robust. The word has since fallen out of favor, though it will live forever in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the title character warns a player against overacting like “a robustious perrywig-pated fellow.”
Oak trees have long been a common and important tree on Britain, so English has had a name for them for centuries. In Old English, the tree was simply ac. Middle English texts find the word spelled in myriad ways, from aike to hokke, but eventually it settled to oak in Modern English.
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