The Incredible Etymology of “Robot”

Introduction

You’ve probably never asked yourself where the word “robot” came from, even if you work in the industry itself. This is hardly uncommon, how many welders dug into the origins of the name of their profession? How many medieval (or modern) lords bothered to learn that their lofty title originally stemmed for the humble loaf of bread?*

If you have asked yourself where the word “robot” came from, you most likely just assumed it came from Latin or Greek. This is what I assumed at any rate, and it couldn’t have been more wrong.

Not only does the word robot not come from either of these ancient sources, it’s not even an old word. Rather, it was created in 1921 in the young Czech Republic.

*It’s true, the word lord comes from the Old English word “hlāfweard,” meaning literally “bread guardian.” Over time, it shortened simply into “lord.”

etymologyimage

Genesis

The word “robot” was created by the Josef Capek, the brother of the Czech author and playwright, Karel Capek.

In 1920 Karl was writing a play about man-made human-like machines. Sometime that year his brother, Josef, suggested that he name the machines “Robots:” Karel was so pleased with the neologism that it made it into the title of the play, “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).”

Etymology

Josef Capek created the word “robot” itself from the Czech word for “drudgery” or “serfdom”, robota. Robota itself shares heritage with the Russian for work and, more distantly, with the German word “Arbeit.” Consequently, it could be more literally translated into English as “drudger” or simply as “servant.”

However, the word “robot” was not changed as the play was translated into foreign languages and it quickly established itself in a huge variety of European languages.

The play and its ominous end 

The play premiered in 1921 and this can be considered the birthday of the word “robot.” Robots as envisaged by the word’s father were quite a bit different from our one-armed friends and automated vacuum cleaners. In the play robots were actually created from organic matter and were not mechanical.

The fears expressed by the author in the play, however, have echoed throughout the following century and have become a key focal point for opponents of intelligent machines.

While the Capek’s robots were happy to take over dull tasks and to serve their human creators in the beginning, that changed with time.  At the end of the play, the robots rebel, usurp, and exterminate their human creators.

Here are Unchained Robotics, we undertake to keep our robots happy and healthy so that they don’t live up to their name!

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