Robots are a staple of science fiction and increasingly an important part of life in our present-day world. The word comes from the Czech robota, a word literally meaning forced labor, but which is also used figuratively to mean drudgery, hard work. Robota has cognates in several Slavic languages, and the use of robot in English to refer to the system of serfdom in Eastern Europe dates to the early nineteenth century.
But the sense meaning an artificial being that can, in some fashion, take the place of a human is more recent. Czech writer Karel Čapek (1890–1938) created this new sense by modifying the word robota and coining robot in his 1920 play R. U. R. (which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). The dystopian play, set in a robot factory, is about a world where humans rely on robot labor. In what is now an all-too-familiar plot (Terminator; Battlestar Galactica; I, Robot; 2001: A Space Odyssey; ...) , the robots rebel, killing all the humans, save one, but in the end, the robots discover love and become a new form of humanity. Čapek credited his brother Josef for helping him come up with the word.
R. U. R. was a popular play and quickly translated into English, opening on Broadway in 1922, with English use of the word robot appearing in newspapers as early as August of that year in anticipation of the October premiere. The play was a hit on Broadway, but the word robot proved even more popular, becoming widely used throughout the 1920s for both literal and metaphorical automatons. A good sign that a word has entered the language to stay is when it is modified to form new words or used as a different part of speech, and indeed by 1928 the adjective robotic was in use, and the combining form robo- was in place by 1945. In a time where industrialization and factory labor was combining with rising totalitarianism (the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was in 1917 and Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922), robot struck a chord that resonated with the times.
While Čapek coined the word, he did not invent the concept. The idea of human-like automatons has been around for centuries. The word android, an automaton that resembles a human, dates to the eighteenth century. And the Czech origin of robot recalls the Jewish tradition of the golem, a robot-like servant made from mud. Golem is Hebrew for shapeless mass. The most famous tale of a golem takes place in sixteenth-century Prague, where rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel creates one to defend Prague’s Jewish ghetto from a pogram.
Čapek’s robots were human-like androids, but the word, especially in its actual application to real-world automatons, is often used for machines that do not resemble humans at all. This shift is not recent and goes back at least to 1927, almost as long as the word has been in use in English. In 1930, for example, automated traffic signals in London were dubbed robots. This particular use of the word has fallen out of use in British English, but survives in South Africa.
“android, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“robot, n.2,” “robotic, adj. and n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2010.
Shapiro, Fred, “More RE: Antedatings and Etymology of ‘Robot,’” ADS-L, 25 May 1922.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton