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From this Hacker News discussion, I learned that the Czech word "robota" means "forced labor" and has mostly negative connotations. In Polish, which is a closely related Slavic language, it is a rather generic and neutral term for "work". To my knowledge, this is also true in modern Russian. However, considering that the word for "slave" is "раб", I am curious about how these two are related and whether "работа" used to specifically mean forced or slave work in the past.

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I am curious about how these two are related

Работа and раб are closely related, both originating from Proto-Slavic *orbъ "orphan, slave". They are also distant cognates to English "orphan" and (according to some sources) to German Arbeit "work".

whether "работа" used to specifically mean forced or slave work in the past.

Yes, it did (in Old Russian). More specifically, it meant "slavery":

  • и яко взѧ городъ и пожьже и старѣишины же города ижьже и прочая люди ѡвѣхъ изби а другия работѣ преда муже своимъ а прокъ ѡстави ихъ платити дань // [Повесть временных лет по Ипатьевскому списку (1110-е)]

    "As she (Princess Olga) took the city, she burned it, and burned its eldermen, and killed some of its people, and others consigned to slavery unto her men, and still others made pay tribute"

  • … ѡбрѣтше тѧ проводника яко моисѣа новыи сии изр҃ль изводѧщаго из работы немилосьрдья и ѿ мрака скѹпости. // [Киевская летопись (1119—1199)]

    "(Those who) found a leader in you, like Moses, leading this new Israel away from slavery, cruelty, and the darkness of squalor"

It was used in the sense of "non-forced labor" as well from time to time, but that was a metaphorical, non-primary meaning until well into the late medieval.

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  • Interesting! So, "robot" is not only "slave", but also "orphan". I'm wondering if Čapek was aware of that...
    – gog
    Jan 22 at 21:38
  • @gog: just to clarify, the meaning of "orphan" is reconstructed from other PIE branches and semantic parallels (cf. otrok "slave" in West Slavic). It isn't directly attested in any Slavic languages, not that I'm aware.
    – Quassnoi
    Jan 22 at 21:45

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