Even if you’re not familiar with the long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who, you’ve probably seen a Dalek or two, the robotic alien beings that have permeated modern pop culture.
And if you are a fan of Doctor Who, you might have wondered: where did the term Dalek come from?
According to an interview with the Radio Times in the 1970s, as reported by The Etyman Language Blog, Who writer Terry Nation came up with the term by noting a dictionary volume that covered words beginning with DAL – LEK. Much like L. Frank Baum and The Wizard of Oz.
But Nation himself debunked this in an interview years later, according to The New Statesman:
“In a desperate attempt to satisfy persistent journalists, who wanted some profound explanation for my naming the Daleks, I told them that I’d been inspired by the letters on a volume of an encyclopaedia. But… no encyclopaedia in print covers those letters DAL-LEK. Anyone checking the facts could have found me out… The name, it simply rolled off the typewriter.”
But the notion that Nation simply made up the name out of thin air isn’t very satisfying, either. And since the writer passed away in 1998, we may never have conclusive evidence about where the name came from.
But that shouldn’t stop us from theorizing.
The term ‘dalek’ is used in Slavic languages like Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Polish. And Czech, where the word ‘daleko’ is a common term for “far away”.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that Nation would have borrowed a Slavic term meaning “far away” as a name for his alien beings from the far future.
But why specifically Czech?
Nation would have known that the term ‘robot’ originated as the Czech word ‘robota’, meaning ‘serf labor,’ and was popularized by writer Karel Čapek in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).
While the Daleks aren’t technically robots – they’re aliens living inside a metallic casing – they do have the appearance of a traditional robotic being.
It’s within the realm of possibility, then, that Nation was inspired by the Czech term ‘robot’, and sought another within the language to use as the name for his robot-like beings, eventually settling on the appropriate far-away meaning ‘dalek’ (like Čapek sliced off the ‘a’ in robota, Nation would have cut the ‘o’ from daleko.)
Interestingly enough, according to this website Dalek is also used as a name in the Czech Republic, a short version of Dalibor. Though I’ve never come across a Dalek in Prague.