This week scientists announced that they had created the first living robots by building machines using stem cells taken from African frogs. So far they cannot do anything useful, such as delivering Amazon packages, but they do glory in a new name: “xenobots”.
“Robot”, from which “-bot” is taken, is a Czech coinage by the playwright Karel Čapek from the word for forced labour; while “xenos” is the Greek for strange or foreign – hence constructions such as “xenomorph”, the (literally “strange-shaped”) creature in the film Alien, or “xenophobia”: fear of foreigners. The Greeks also used “xenos” to mean a guest, and their ethic of “xenia” required hospitality to guests: as we have seen from the political discourse since 2016, xenophobia and xeniaphobia go hand in hand. Not nearly as common, for some reason, is the word “xenomania”, coined in the late 19th century (before “xenophobia”) for a passion for all things foreign, or its milder form “xenophilia”.
Perhaps future rhetorical struggles, then, will contend over whether home-grown robots or suspiciously cosmopolitan xenobots from overseas should replace us in our jobs. In the meantime, I for one welcome our new xenobot overlords.
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.