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Berserk Robots in the Vicinity?

“Science fiction has its own specialized vocabulary, words that are immediately understandable to initiated readers but largely incomprehensible to the world in general—words like hyperspace, teleportation, telekinesis, esper, solarian, terraforming. The subculture known as science fiction fandom has a special esoteric jargon too, and its words are so cryptic that only a fraction of the main science fiction audience would understand them—corflu, filk-song, Hugo, gafia, GoH, and many more. 

But it occurred to me the other day that a good many sciencefictional words, and even some of the fannish ones, have escaped from our microcosm and established themselves as standard terms in modern English. I mean words like “robot” and “alien” and “fanzine.” So I betook myself to that estimable reference volume, Brave New Words, otherwise known as the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, to see just how many escapees there are. (Brave New Words, edited by Jeff Prucher and published in 2007 by the Oxford University Press, became self-referential a year later when it won a Hugo for best non-fiction work. Page 93 defines the Hugo as “any of several awards presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention . . . for excellence in science fiction or fantasy writing, art, publishing, etc.”) From it I drew these examples: 

Robot. Everybody knows what a robot is: a big clunking metal machine, usually, but not always, anthropomorphic in shape, that does the jobs humans don’t want to do. Robots perform dangerous tasks inside atomic power plants. Assembly lines in factories use robot arms to put things together. People who speak in dull, monotonous, mechanical tones are described as “robotic.” The word is part of the common language. But it comes straight out of science fiction: Karel Capek’s 1923 play, R.U.R—the initials stand for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”—which is about the advent of quasiintelligent mechanical laborers. Capek didn’t have to reach very far to invent a name for his machines. It came from his native language, Czech, where it means “work,” usually with the implication of hard, boring work. It is found in other Slavic languages, too, which provided a strange experience for me last year when I visited Poland and, on my first day, found a sign posted on the wall outside my hotel that said, UWAGA! ROBOTY BUDOWLANE! I had learned already that “uwaga!” meant “danger!” Were we being warned against berserk robots in the vicinity? Not quite. A Polish friend provided the prosaic translation: “Danger! Construction work!” 

From Robert Silverberg's editorial in this month's issue of Asimov's Science Fiction

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