The interesting origins of a ubiquitous word
Here’s a question for you: when did the word ‘robot’ first enter the English language? And where did it come from? There are a few misconceptions about the origins and various meanings of the term ‘robot’, so the issue is worth examining a little more closely. The most common definition of ‘robot’ is the one provided by the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘An intelligent artificial being typically made of metal and resembling in some way a human or other animal.’ But the story of how the word came to have this meaning is a curious one. Its origin, indeed, takes us back to nineteenth-century Europe.
‘Robot’ makes its debut in the English language, perhaps surprisingly, during the Victorian age: the first citation is from 1839. But it doesn’t refer to the humanoid machines of a million science-fiction novels and films made since, but rather to a ‘central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant’s rent was paid in forced labour or service’ (OED). This word came to English via the German, though the word ultimately derives from the Czech robota meaning ‘forced labour’ or ‘slavery’. Not a very pleasant etymology; though the Austrian Empire banned slavery in 1848, which is something.
The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by the remarkable and fascinating Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title.
The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather foreshadowings, of The Terminator here).
This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’. But Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. As we’ve already seen, the word was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made beings that feature in R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti.
Curiously, the robots which feature in Rossum’s Universal Robots aren’t really robots – at least, not if we’re being picky and technical. They are closer to androids or cyborgs than robots, because they can be mistaken for real people (again, think of the Terminator in his/her many incarnations). So the first ‘robots’ in literature to be so named were, in a sense, misnamed – or rather, we’ve been misusing the term ever since. Such is the way language develops.
In 1938, Čapek’s play was adapted by the BBC, and became the first piece of television science fiction ever to be broadcast.
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov is credited with inventing the spin-off word ‘robotic’ – Asimov famously formulated the Three Laws of Robotics. Curiously, there are technically four Laws – a ‘zeroth’ law was added later (no doubt inspired by the Laws of Thermodynamics).
So there we have it: the origin of ‘robot’ is stranger than it might first seem. You can continue to explore the unusual stories behind well-known words with the surprising origins of the word virus, the history behind the word vaccine, and the reason why the word homophobia meant something quite different when it was first coined.
Image: A scene from the original stage production of Rossum’s Universal Robots, via Wikimedia Commons.