R.U.R. or R.U.Rn’t My Robot?

K.u.K. postage stamp

I very much doubt that I’m the first person to have thought of this, but I haven’t found it mentioned anywhere else, so I’ll put forward my conjecture: might the title for Karel Čapek’s most famous (though certainly not best) work, R.U.R., have been inspired by the formerly all-pervasive (see, e.g., the abbreviation on the postage stamp at right) K.u.K., official symbol of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? (“K.u.K.” stood for “Kaiserlich und Königlich,” or “Imperial and Royal,” signifying that the Habsburg monarch was both Emperor (Kaiser) of Austria and King (König) of Hungary.)

As you can see, it takes only minor editing to transform “K.u.K.” into “R.U.R.”:

K.u.K. into R.U.R.

If this was indeed Čapek’s inspiration, he would hardly be the only author in 1920s Czechoslovakia to be slamming the Austrian rule from which his country had just emerged; anarchist Jaroslav Hašek’s scathing satire The Good Soldier Švejk would be the most obvious example, though Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle have likewise been interpreted as being in part (no one thinks this is the works’ sole meaning) a critique of quondam Austrian rule.

Could R.U.R., the firm that casually treats the “robots” (the term comes from a Czech word originally meaning “serf labour”) as a lower order that can be put to work, especially war work (as one character says: “It was criminal of old Europe to teach the robots to fight. … Couldn’t they have given us a rest with their politics? It was a crime to make soldiers of them”), be meant to symbolise, in part, the K.u.K. monarchy that casually treated the Czechs as a lower order that could be conscripted into a world war in which they had no stake? (Of course Čapek’s satire, like Kafka’s, tends to operate at multiple levels simultaneously, so his robots can still stand, in addition, for out-of-control technology, social dehumanisation, the oppressed proletariat, etc., etc.)

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16 Responses to R.U.R. or R.U.Rn’t My Robot?

  1. Bola April 16, 2010 at 7:58 pm #


  2. Joel Schlosberg April 16, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Well at least there’s not much doubt about the source of the title for Anthony Boucher’s sequel “Q. U. R.” (in-story, it stands for “Quinby’s Usuform Robots”).

  3. Mike Gogulski April 17, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Neat idea, whether it’s true or not.

    The word “robot” indeed does have the origin you mention. The Historical Dictionary of the Slovak Language has as its first entry, with a reference dating to 1552:

    nútená bezplatná práca poddaných na majetku vrchnosti, feudálna pracovná povinnos?

    Which translates to: “The obligatory, uncompensated work of serfs on the lands of a lord; a feudal work obligation”.

    The word robota is still in use here in Slovakia. “I’m going to work” is often rendered “Idem do práce“, but “Idem do roboty” is also heard, which may carry a less favorable connotation.

  4. Bob Kaercher April 17, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    I’ve never even heard of Karel Capek before. I clicked on the Wikipedia link and the info on that play piques my interest. I’ll have to check it out sometime.

  5. tomas cunik April 18, 2010 at 4:19 pm #

    so impressed you know these three authors..hasek´s good soldier svejk is the most hilarious book ive ever read..its pity you cant read it in czech..

  6. Roderick April 22, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    a) When I picked the title for this blog post, I’d completely forgotten that I’d used it before (with less justification).

    b) I also forgot to mention that in Robert Musil’s classic Viennese novel The Man Without Qualities, the Austro-Hungarian Empire is renamed “Kakania,” a triple pun on caca/kaka (a Latin-derived slang term for “shit” in many Western languages), kako (a Greek prefix meaning “bad,” as in “cacophany”), and of course “K.u.K.” (“K” being “Ka” in German). Perhaps the best translation would be “KuKuland.”

  7. Amy April 22, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    Well at least there’s not much doubt about the source of the title for Anthony Boucher’s sequel “Q. U. R.” (in-story, it stands for “Quinby’s Usuform Robots”).

    • Roderick April 23, 2010 at 1:42 am #

      Yes, Joel said something vaguely similar.

      • Roderick April 25, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

        Oh, I see. It’s a new (to me) form of spam where the spammer just repeats verbatim one of the earlier comments. I found several like this and booted them. I’ll keep this one from “Amy” because I commented on it — but I removed the spamlink from her name.

        • Joel Schlosberg April 27, 2010 at 10:52 am #

          Hey, I’m kind of flattered that a spammer chose a comment of mine to rip off! And I may be the only person who has heard of (much less read) Q.U.R.; it’s in the important and once-famous anthology Adventures in Time and Space but is certainly one of the more minor stories selected.

          I haven’t seen too many creative types of spam comments, the ones that used to plague my blog before I turned on comment moderation were in three distinct types: they would say “nice blog” or something similarly vague and then have a spam link totally unrelated to the topic of the blog post, would constantly talk about their supply of World of Warcraft gold with a distinct lack of capitalization or punctuation, or would be nothing more than incoherent word salads.

        • Roderick April 27, 2010 at 11:50 am #

          Well, I’m not at all sure there’s much “choosing” involved; I’m inclined to think it’s an automatic program that just randomly picks earlier posts to copy (on the theory that if the earlier comment got past the spam filter, so will this). I’ve been deleting loads of them, each from a different first-name-only poster.

        • Joel Schlosberg April 27, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

          So a robot copied my comment about stories about robots? In a way that’s even better.

        • Brandon April 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

          They all appear to be coming from proxy servers. I tend to think that a regular reader here or someone with this site bookmarked has a malware infection that’s spamming sites, or is part of a botnet that’s doing so.

        • Roderick April 27, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

          I blame society.

        • Brandon April 27, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

          Get with it. It’s clearly the fault of the commies.

        • Mike Gogulski April 27, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

          I’m working on a WordPress anti-spam plugin which will ban both the commies and society from commenting. As soon as I can craft the regexp for their bot/browser signature, they’re toast!

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