If we trace the history of any word diligently enough, we are sure to experience the uncanny sensation of how truly interconnected world languages of the past and present are. Perhaps no word better evokes that idea than the word robot. In modern usage, robot conjures up images of lifeless automatons and machines whose explicit purpose is to serve their human makers, and who are devoid of the spirit and soul that those creators possess. While this image seems like a modern one, stemming from the deluge of technologies endemic to our era, the roots of this word compel us to the very soil of the Proto-Indo-European language tree.
Our journey back in time is best begun from the word’s most recent incarnation. In 1920, Czech writer Karel Čapek published a science-fiction play entitled R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In it, Čapek relates the tale of a class of artificial people created in factories to serve the needs of humans. These “robots” soon took issue with their lot and led a hostile takeover to overthrow their human masters, resulting in the extinction of humans as a species. While Čapek’s robots were more animate and sentient than our modern understanding of the term entails, he nonetheless is credited with coining the word “robot” to mean what we today consider a machine created to do our bidding.
Čapek’s choice of terminology is far from arbitrary: It draws from the Czech and Slavonic word rabota, meaning “work” or “servitude.” Echoes of this word can be heard in the German arbeit, also meaning “to work.” The root of that word leads us even farther into the past to the word rabu or rab, meaning “slave.” A slave, both in our modern understanding and in the etymological and historical sense of the word, is someone devoid of autonomy. This understanding, in turn, resonates with the Greek orphos, meaning “bereft.” Thus, an orphan is someone bereft of parents and a rab or rabotnik is someone bereft of free status. In fact, a number of Proto-Indo-European languages share the root of orbh or orphos when discussing someone or something lacking free will, autonomy, or support. Old English, too, used a similar word – earfoð. In this case, it meant hardship, suffering, and strife. Given such an extensive history of limited power and stifled liberty, being a robot is no enviable line of work.
Artwork: Color silkscreen poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek