Karel Capek and the Meaning of “Robot”

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Karel capek

The word robot comes from the word robota which means literally “serf labor”, and, figuratively, “drudgery” or “hard work” in Czech, Slovak and Polish. The origin of the word will be the Old Church Slavonic rabota “servitude” (“work” in modern Russian), which in turn comes from the Indo-European root *orbh-. Robot is cognate with the German word Arbeiter (worker).

Karel Capek introduced and made well-known the frequently used international word robot, which earliest shown up in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1921. While it’s generally believed that he was the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Capek, as its actual inventor.

Rossums Universal Robots RUR
Rossums Universal Robots (R.U.R) Scene

In an article in the Czech journal Lidove noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wished to call the creatures labori (from Latin labor, work). Nevertheless, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and used suggestions from his brother Josef, who suggested “roboti” (robots in English).

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