• robot •
Pronunciation: ro-baht • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A mechanical device designed to do the work of a human being. 2. A person who performs repetitious work mechanically, without feeling or emotion. 3. (South Africa) A stoplight, an automatic traffic light.
Notes: C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars have now become the quintessential robots of modern times with their ingratiating human mannerisms. Keep in mind, though, automobiles and many other appliances are built by robots that bear no resemblance to humans. Robots do not necessarily look human—no more than a traffic light does! The adjective is robotic and the adverb, robotically. The study or use of robots is known as robotics, a singular mass noun: Robotics is an interesting science.
In Play: The central meaning of today's word is a machine without human feelings or emotions: "Mick Annicle talks to customers like a robot; we've got to find him a more robotic job." On your next visit to South Africa, however, remember the surprising meaning of this word: "My South African friend directed an American she really didn't want to see to her house by telling him to turn left at the second robot—and no one has seen him since."
Word History: This Good Word comes to us from Czech, the stem of robotiti "to work as a slave or a drudge". It was originally applied to the mechanical men and women in the play R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Carel Čapek (1920). The root in the Czech word is rob-, also found in Russian rab "slave" and rabota "work". If you metathesize (switch) the [r] and the [a], as has often happened naturally in Indo-European languages, you get arb-, the root in German Arbeit "work", also found in other Germanic languages. (The interesting 3rd meaning of today's word was brought to our attention by the most human-like Chris Stewart, our friend of many years, in Johannesburg, South Africa.)
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- Grand Panjandrum
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