Thursday 12 August 2010

Robocop: The Feudal Getter

Once upon a time in central Europe there were lords and peasants. The lords owned all the land but peasants were granted portions of it for themselves. The peasant would then work his own little plot and the lord's. The bigger the peasant's plot, the longer he had to work the fields of the lord who had granted it to him.

This system, abolished by Emperor Josef II (right) in 1848, was called robot.

The system was abolished, but the word of course survived. 72 years later, in 1920, a Czech fellow called Karel Čapek was writing a play. It was about a factory that would produced willing servants out of biological matter. Mr Čapek decided to use the Latin root labor (that gives us labour) and call these servants labori.

And that would have been that were it not for his brother Josef, who suggested calling them robots instead. The play was performed under the title RUR: Rossum's Universal Robots and the word arrived in English two years later.

Meanwhile, cop can mean get, as in the (chiefly British) slang cop out and cop a feel. So policeman, whose job it was to get robbers were called coppers, which was then shortened to cops.

And so by 1987 the touching tale of a factory-produced servile-policeman could comprehensibly be called Robocop.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening.

Original robots in a production of Rossum's Universal Robots


  1. I have run out of compliments for you. The next best thing is posting this to Facebook, which I have done.

  2. I think the original feudal system was called robota, not robot, but that's just a minor thing.

  3. You are, Physicist, correct. But the system was used in several countries and the word therefore existed in several languages with different suffixes. Robota is Czech but Emperor Josef would have spelled it differently, so I decided to simplify.

  4. This is very interesting. No buts. Just that. I don't know where you find the time to do this, but I am so glad that you do it. If this is part of your job, then I am also very envious.