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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

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Robot

Gort retired to Tampa and married a Roomba.

Dear Word Detective: I recently went to your website for the first time and found it to be awesome. But I could not believe I was looking for a word that you have apparently not yet detected: Robot. Where did that come from? Surely not Isaac Asimov. — Mark.

Well, there are a lot of words out there. In any case, no, Isaac Asimov didn’t coin “robot.” Asimov did, however, popularize robots in dozens of his science fiction stories and novels, and, in his 1942 story “Runaround,” he devised the “Three Laws of Robotics.” (Asimov had already coined the word “robotics” for the science of robots in 1941.) Asimov’s “Laws” for robots (basically “Don’t hurt humans, Do as we say, and Don’t wear white after Labor Day”) were widely accepted as gospel and utilized by other science fiction writers. Sadly, although Asimov and my father were friends, I never met him.

The word “robot” first appeared in English in 1922, in a translation of the play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” by the Czech writer Karel Capek, which had been staged in 1920. The “robots” in Capek’s play were neither the clunky metal automatons of 1950s “space operas” nor the sleek humanoid T-Series machines of Ahnold’s Terminator movies. Capek’s robots were artificial humans, constructed of organic material, with their own (albeit somewhat limited)  intellects. From what I’ve read, it seems that much of the play is devoted to an examination of the morality of exploiting the “robots.”

Karel Capek credited his brother, the artist and writer Josef Capek, with suggesting that he call the creatures in his play “robots” rather than, as Karel had originally intended, coming up with a word based on the Latin word “labor” (work). Apparently Josef had previously used “robot” in this sense in one of his own short stories. In a curious case of recursion (and possibly a smidgen of time travel), “robot” appears in the Czech language title of Capek’s play as if it were an English word, which it wasn’t until the play was later translated into English.

Josef Capek derived “robot” from the common Czech word “robota,” meaning “hard work or drudgery,” which has relatives in several other languages, including German, Polish and Russian. This “robot” was originally a system of feudalism in which serfs paid their lords for their plot of land with periods of forced labor.

The initial definition of “robot” in English, based on Capek’s play, was “an artificial human being,” which captured the imagination of other science-fiction writers as well as captains of industry (“Robots were by all means better for use in factories and in armies, making cheap labor material, and not causing any troubles as strikers.” NY Times, 1922). But almost immediately, the less-than-effusive personalities of fictional robots gave us “robot” meaning “a person who acts mechanically, without feeling or thought” (“Mr. G. Bernard Shaw defined Robots as persons all of whose activities were imposed on them.” 1923).

While truly fully-functioning humanoid robots have apparently yet to be developed (although I have my suspicions about the clerks at the DMV), robots are now common in industry and in the form of “robot” computer software, which performs highly repetitive tasks, such as sifting though your email looking for advertising opportunities, as well as sending out email replies to complaints about the behavior of other robots.

Intimate / Intimidate

 Separated before birth.

Dear Word Detective:  I heard recently that the words “intimidate” and “intimacy” share a common root meaning. This makes a sort of twisted sense as so many people are timid when it comes to opening themselves up to others, which is required for intimacy. Finding the origins of “intimidate” never caused me any worry, but I could never even get close to “intimacy.” Do fear and closeness go hand in hand? — Shawn.

Um, yes. I mean no. Could you repeat the question? Actually, just explaining the third sentence would help a lot. Meanwhile, I’m a little afraid to ask where you heard that “intimate” and “intimidate” are related, but it sounds like the sort of nifty “fact” often dispensed by self-help gurus and similar feather merchants. I plead guilty to finding this sort of thing especially annoying because the “facts” so often involve words being supposedly related or from the same “root.”

Occasionally the whole shebang turns on a pun masquerading as some sort of cosmic etymological convergence, as in the perennially popular “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called ‘the present.’” Only a Grinch would argue with today (usually) being a wonderful thing akin to a shiny new toaster. But that’s not why we call this historical period, this day or this moment “the present.” Although “present” in the “right now” sense and “present” in the “something given as a gift” sense are related (they both go back to the Latin “praesens,” meaning “at hand” or “being here”), they are two separate words with very different histories.

In the case of “intimate” and “intimidate,” the only thing the two words have in common is the use of the Latin prefix “in,” meaning “into” or “within.” They do not share a “common root meaning.”

“Intimidate” carries a clue to its “root meaning” right in the middle of the word: “timid.” “Intimidate” first appeared in the mid-17th century meaning “to render timid; to make fearful, to cow.” In modern usage, “to intimidate” often involves force or threats of force or violence (“Advantage was taken of the presence of the regular troops … to intimidate the Grasia chiefs into acquiescence.” 1848). The root sense of “intimidate” is “to make timid”; “timid” itself comes from the Latin “timidus,” from the verb “timere,” meaning “to fear.”

“Intimate” as an adjective and noun also comes from Latin, in this case the superlative “intimus,” meaning “most personal, profound” (as a noun, “intimus” meant “close friend”). In English, “intimate” can mean “most personal, innermost” (as one’s intimate thoughts) or “closely personal or familiar” (as in intimate family relationships or intimate knowledge of a subject). As a noun, “intimate” means someone who is a very close friend or associate (“Henry … only remembered that Oliver had been his friend and intimate.” 1828).

Interestingly, “intimate” is also a verb, but it followed completely different route into English from that of “intimate” as a noun or adjective. (It’s also usually pronounced differently, with a long “a” in the third syllable.) While “to intimate” today means “to suggest indirectly or imply,” its source was the Latin “intimare,” meaning “to announce,” and in English “to intimate” originally meant “to make known, notify formally, announce” or even “to declare” in the case of war. That’s quite a reversal for “to intimate.” It’s possible that the cuddly adjective “intimate” exerted a moderating influence on the verb over time, and “to intimate” became less about shouting things in public and more about slyly suggesting them in the privacy of one’s own parlor.

Pound sand

I hate sand and writing this column gave me the creeps. Beaches nauseate me. There, I’ve said it. If you need me I’ll be in the library.

Dear Word Detective:  Though it’s not the kindest of sayings, I have always been curious as to the origins of the term “pound salt,” as in “Why don’t you go pound salt!” — Dave Jaffe.

Me too. This is one of those phrases I first heard as a kid, but never thought to research. Of course, most of my research at that point was focused on dinosaurs and the likelihood (and looming danger) of their possible sudden reappearance. I mention this because I recently discovered a nifty British sci-fi TV series on Netflix called “Primeval” in which time-traveling dinosaurs suddenly pop-up in shopping malls and bowling alleys. It sounds insipid, but my inner 12-year old loves it.

Meanwhile, back at your question, I dimly remember first hearing the phrase you mention as “Go pound sand,” not “salt,” but I suspect the difference is not integral to whatever logic the phrase may possess. “Why don’t you go pound sand” is an extremely hostile way to say “Get lost,” on a par with the forceful suggestions, so popular on premium cable, that the recipient go do something anatomically impossible. Usage note: Generally speaking, phrases conveying annoyance and beginning “Why don’t you go…” rarely lead to constructive dialog or lasting friendships. The gentlest one I can think of is the old-fashioned “Why don’t you go soak your head,” and even that is probably a euphemism for something much more unpleasant.

There are three common “pounds” in English, two nouns and a verb. “Pound” as a measure of weight comes from the Latin “libra pondo.” “Libra” was a Roman unit of weight roughly equivalent to our modern pound; “pondo” means “by weight” in Latin. “Pondo” came to stand, as “pound,” for the weight itself (which makes no real sense), but the original “libra” gave us the abbreviation “lb.” “Pound” as a unit of currency in Great Britain and elsewhere was originally equivalent in value to a pound of silver.

The other “pound” noun is “a place where stray animals are kept” (originally a corral for stray or confiscated cattle). This “pound” comes from roots meaning “enclose; dam up,” and this “pound” is closely related to “pond.”

“Pound” as a verb meaning “to strike, hit or smash with repeated heavy blows” comes from ancient Germanic roots meaning “fragments, remains, rubbish,” presumably referring to the results of a good pounding.

“To pound sand” (or “salt”) is a North American invention that first appeared in print back in 1857 meaning “to engage in a pointless, menial task” (Oxford English Dictionary) (“If he told them to pound sand, they would pound sand, and think that it was the finest thing in the world.” 1905). Literally pounding sand (with a shovel, for instance) is indeed a pointless chore; the sand does not really compress or adhere to itself, so the result is largely indistinguishable from the starting point. Nailing Jell-O to a wall would probably be more fulfilling. To tell someone you find annoying to “go pound sand” is therefore extremely dismissive; in fact “pounding sand” has also served as a metaphorical task the truly clueless might find challenging (“We don’t know whether the young man you refer to knows enough to pound sand or not.” 1877).

While some examples of “pound sand” I’ve found seem to lend a purpose to the activity (“He ain’t got sense enough to pound sand in a rathole.” 1994), such embellishments are probably simply added to make the statement more forceful. Everything is nastier with rats.