May 20, 2013

Case File #013.05.20: ROBOT

Robot is a relatively new word, having first appeared in Paul Selver's English translation of Czech writer Karel Capek's popular 1920 play R.U.R.(Rossum's Universal Robots). The word that Selver translated as robots is roboti, a term Capek and his brother, Josef, derived from the Czech word robotnik, meaning “serf” or “slave laborer,” which itself had evolved from the older Czech word robota, meaning “menial labor” or “drudgery.” In the play, the characters referred to as robots—or roboti in the Czech version—are humanlike machines constructed solely for performing manual labor and other subservient tasks, and soon after the play debuted in New York in 1923, the word robot passed into the English lexicon as a designation for any machine resembling a human and capable of replicating, at least to some degree, human movements and functions. It was only a year or two later that the noun also took on the senses of “an apparatus that can carry out a complex series of actions either automatically or by remote control” and, figuratively, “a person who behaves in a mechanical or unemotional manner,” but it was another fifty or so years before it became the name of the dance style made famous by Michael Jackson.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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