The Grammarphobia Blog

Robot talk

Q: I was watching a video in which Isaac Asimov pronounces “robot” as ROH-but instead of the way it’s pronounced today: ROH-bot. When did his pronunciation arise and why did it vanish?

A: Asimov’s pronunciation didn’t vanish.

We checked four American dictionaries and three of them list both ROH-bot and ROH-but as standard pronunciations of “robot.” Most British dictionaries, though, list only one pronunciation: ROH-bot.

We can’t tell you exactly when Asimov’s pronunciation of “robot” arose, but it’s not in our 1956 edition of the Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

Webster’s Second lists two pronunciations: ROH-bot and ROB-ott. However, we haven’t seen ROB-ott in any other dictionary, including Webster’s Third.

In that YouTube video you mention, the science fiction writer discusses the Three Laws of Robotics, which were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

However, the noun “robot” originally had nothing to do with science fiction.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it first showed up in English in the early 19th century in reference to  a “central European system of serfdom, by which a tenant’s rent was paid in forced labour or service.”

The OED’s earliest written example is from an 1839 book by John Paget about Hungary and Transylvania: “The system of rent by robot or forced labour … is a direct premium on idleness.”

However, Oxford says this sense of the word is now historical—that is, used to refer to events in the past.

The dictionary says the term was resurrected in the early 20th century in its science fiction sense: “An intelligent artificial being typically made of metal and resembling in some way a human or other animal.”

Oxford’s earliest example of the new usage is from the Oct. 10, 1922, issue of the New York Times: “A Robot that fails to raise goose flesh does dire sabotage against its dramatic inventor.”

The OED says this usage originated in the Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1921 science fiction play RUR (the title stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots). In fact, the Times citation is from a review of the English translation of the play.

Capek, at the suggestion of his brother Joseph, extracted the Czech word robot from robota (Czech for forced labor or drudgery), according to the OED.

The dictionary says the English word was soon being used figuratively to refer to a “person who acts mechanically or without emotion.”

The first OED citation for this usage is from the June 22, 1923, issue of the Westminster Gazette: “Mr. G. Bernard Shaw defined Robots as persons all of whose activities were imposed on them.”

In a few years, the word was being used to refer to a “machine capable of automatically carrying out a complex series of movements.”

The first OED example is from the Oct. 17, 1927, issue of the Syracuse (NY) Herald: “A ‘televocal’ electrical robot, which … can answer the telephone, tell the height of water in a reservoir, open doors, switch on lights and perform other mechanical services.”

Now, that’s a jack of all trades!

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