"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 28 October 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Robust Aroma



"Just do it," "Put it in your head,"

"Welcome to the next level" -

they're phrases that have made

the jump from schoolyard tussle

to political cockfight, but not

without the help of Madison

Avenue, where repetition breeds

currency. Marketing campaigns

shape language and drive

vernacular English by gleaning

slang from subcultures and

redistributing it across middle

America on a mass scale. Lefties

may level charges that the suits

are co-opting authentic

expression, but young suburban

audiences, lacking direct access

to said authentic outlaw urban

cultures, are only too eager to

lap up the next best thing in

the form of a corporate-cool

directive. Find that precious

word or catchphrase with just

enough novelty, cachet, and

breeziness to stick, and you're

home free.



Hardware and software marketing

teams are in the business of

setting up the same loop in West

Coast geek culture and beyond.

They work in a desperate climate

in which clans of companies

hawking all-too-similar products

joust to distinguish themselves

from the competition, depicting

themselves as the brash,

balls-out boy-kings of the

Valley, complete with their own

mythology, while - crucially -

never scaring anyone off by

straying too far from a

reassuringly bloodless image of

measured corporate excellence.


So while soda and sneaker

marketing can read like Beat

poetry, the language of Silicon

Valley hype is a line-by-line

lexicon of pseudononconformity

in which products are

"solutions"; where selling is

"evangelizing"; where writing

code is "architecting." At the

same time, just as political

campaign strategists know that

the evening news is more likely

to air footage of hand-lettered

election signs, press release

scribes try to capture a tone

that is both candid yet

confident - with adjectives and

verbs that are vaguely

technical, but also sensual and

human. When the bullshit feels real,

it makes the Merc.


Gone are the first-generation

prefixes cyber, virtual, techno,

and Net. Too stark; too obvious.

The latest descriptors come

straight out of Sonoma, or a

Starbucks catalog, as in the

reigning champ: "robust." The

word, synonymous with vigorous,

forceful, lusty, and muscular,

describes, according to The

Jargon File, "a system that has

demonstrated an ability to

recover gracefully from the

whole range of exceptional

inputs and situations in a given

environment." At some point,

robust moved from the repertoire

of one famous Bill to that of

another - though in the latter

instance, the graceful recovery

remains to be seen.


The word robust suggests that

even though you've arrived,

you've not stopped striving -

that the entrepreneurial libido

is still intact. But just listen

to how Sun Microsystems buries

it in Dilbertspeak about the

future of network computing:

"Getting there took some bold

moves - transitioning to a

modern, multi-threaded operating

system; architecting a scalable,

flexible, enterprise management

environment, and developing a

robust, distributed objects




Listen, poets, to the proactive,

not-threatening tone, as

rehearsed as a PowerPoint

presentation, but at the same

time as pleasingly forgettable

as Santa Cruz candyfloss. Call

it a new language, Hype++. There

may be other adjectival

contenders lurking out there in

geek culture (our nominations:

massive, deep, fuzzy), but their

crossover appeal is limited. To

take root in the vernacular, a

geekism needs to break out of

code and make sense in other




It may be that like "cool" (and

unlike "smart"), "robust" will

outlive us all - the first

catchphrase legacy hijacked from

the foodies by the software

suits and injected into the

mainstream with the shade of

geek cred. Or it may be that,

aside from some notable efforts,

geeks, at least those given the

task of meme-building, just

aren't as cool as they think

they are.



For now, made-up words are easier

to own, though long-term, we

expect most common nouns and

adjectives to find corporate

parents. At this rate,

object-oriented language will

reach its literal conclusion,

and we'll need to license the

individual words in this

paragraph. The day of the Killer

Adjective won't come anytime

soon, though - and in the short

term, the more effective

approach may be to brand, own,

and codify an entire lexicon.

After all, it's not the language

of marketing that's evolving,

it's the marketing of language.

courtesy of James URL Jones