n. A mechanical or virtual, artificial agent.
n. An electro-mechanical system, which, by its appearance or movements, conveys a sense that it has intent or agency of its own.

It seems as though robots have always been a staple of science fiction. Whether heavily anthropomorphic (such as R2D2 or C3PO in Star Wars) or more traditionally lifeless, the concept of mechanical quasi-humans has fascinated us as long as we can remember.

The word robot itself is Czech in origin. In 1920, a playwright named Karel Čapek published a play whose English translated is R.U.R. (for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). The Czech robota means “forced labor, drudgery,” and Čapek used this to refer to artificial beings1. Robotnik, similarly, connotes a peasant/serf/slave in Czech, and a generic worker in Polish.

Ultimately, these words trace back to the rabota (“servitude”) and finally to Old Slavonic rabu, which means “slave”, and arising from the same source as the German Arbeit, which means “work.”

Almost from the very beginning of the concept, then, the word for artificial beings was loaded with political and cultural tension, setting the stage for every single science fiction writer after Čapek to write about robots revolting against their low status. Asimov used robotics as early as 1941, and it was he that gave us the Three Laws of Robotics and essentially launched the robots-in-scifi meme.

Interestingly, the etymological root of robot gives us several other words that wouldn’t seem related at first glance.

Consider the Proto-Indo-European root *orbho, which connotes “orphan, slave, weak”2. It gives us the Old Irish orbe, Old English ierfa, Gothic arbja, and German erbe (“heir”); it gives the Sanskrit arbhah (“weak” or “child”), Armenian orb (“orphan”); the Greek orphos (“bereft”) led to the Latin orphanus (“parentless child”), which entered into English through the Old French orfeno of the same meaning.

Bonus: an excerpt from Čapek’s play:

DOMIN: Young Rossum successfully invented a worker with the smallest number of needs, but to do so he had to simplify him. He chucked everything not directly related to work, and in so doing he pretty much discarded the human being and created the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, Robots are not people. They are mechanically more perfect than we are, they have an astounding intellectual capacity, but they have no soul. Oh, Miss Gory, the creation of an engineer is technically more redfined than the product of nature.

HELENA: It is said that man is the creation of God.

DOMIN: So much the worse. God had no grasp of modern technology.

  1. Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words, p. 315[]
  2. cf. Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, pg. 781[]
§3825 · May 13, 2009 · Tags: ·

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