Mind your language

Do civil servants need to be 'robust' or 'resilient'?

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

‘Why do they keep saying they need Brazilians?’ asked my husband, coming up for air from a hazy mixture of Radio 4 and whisky. ‘No, darling,’ I tried to explain, ‘not Brazilians. Resilience.’

They had been talking about civil servants sworn at by politicians, or at least being in the same room as swearing. Resilience seems the counterpart to robustness. Sir Alex Allan (who resigned after his report into the conduct of Priti Patel was not taken up wholeheartedly by Boris Johnson) had said that ‘senior civil servants should be expected to handle robust criticism but should not have to face behaviour that goes beyond that’.

My mind went to those rococo rants by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, with similes such as ‘a face like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle’. Is that robust? Or does it go beyond that?

Robustness imitates the oak tree: robur in Latin was a word for an oak and also for ‘strength, solidity, vigour’. The English word red (Latin rubor) derives from the same ultimate source.

We all know the English oak is called Quercus robur, and quercus is the Latin for ‘oak’ too. Our Proto-Indo-European ancestors wandering around forests called the oak perkus. This developed (by mysteriously robust philological laws) into quercus, but also into the word that gives us fir.

Uncertainty remains about cork. You’d think it came for cortex, meaning ‘bark’. But medieval Spain also used an Arabic word alcorque that might have come from quercus without connection to cortex.

The passive virtue of resilience is springier than oak-hard robustness. It comes from the Latin resilire, which bears contrary meanings: to recoil, jump back or withdraw; and to bounce back or rebound. One kind of drawing back has given us resile, often used in a slightly pompous context, with reference to withdrawal from an undertaking.

In one of his stories, P.G. Wodehouse compares scents from the park with the ‘robuster aroma of coffee’. There is actually a more bitter coffee than the dominant arabica bean, called robusta. Perhaps it is served to civil servants when they must wake up and smell it.

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