If you’re British and “of a certain age,” your childhood fears are very likely to include Daleks. Although I wasn’t one to hide behind the chair or wrap myself up in a blanket whilst peering through a tiny gap in my fingers, I seem to recall that the arrival of these knobby salt cellars with their robotic voices shrieking “Exterminate, exterminate” would at least have me tingling.
Yet only yesterday, the UK press was abuzz with the news that these once-fearsome monsters of my youth were to be consigned to the robot scrap heap after 48 years. 48 years! I’ll admit that these days the Daleks come across more as campy shadows of their original selves but like all iconic mythologicals, they provide us with psychological stability and security. “Stability” comes from their being timeless, in the sense that they have been around in the consciousness of millions of people for as long as they can remember, and “security” because evil and dangerous as they are, they never win against the wit and wile of the Doctor – who is, of course, us.
My attention was drawn to topic of Daleks by the good people at the OED and the following tweet:
Eight years later, the Radio Times offered the following definition of the Daleks:
Who are the Daleks? Dr. Who’s most dangerous enemies, written into his second adventure in 1963 by Terry Nation, who named them after an encyclopaedia volume covering dal-lek.
In an interesting twist, the Serbo-Croatian word dalek means “far or distant,” which would certainly fit the notion of the Daleks as being an alien race from the planet Skaro. Sadly, this derivation is an etymythology and even Tery Nation admitted that he only heard this long after he’d already coined the word Dalek.
Pedants and truth seekers may want to take issue with the definition offered by the OED, which is;
A type of robot appearing in ‘Dr. Who’, a B.B.C. Television science-fiction programme; hence used allusively.
Daleks are, in fact, not robots but actual beings who live inside the metallic shell. A robot is a machine that may look like a human and has artificial intelligence, whereas the Dalek frame is a prosthesis, and wearing a prosthesis doesn’t make someone a robot. If that were true, all of us wearing glasses could be reclassified! The aliens living inside the Dalek are called Kaleds and the reason they use a Dalek shell is because they were hideously mutated after many years of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare.
Sadly, Terry Nation died in Los Angeles in 1997 so the truth about the origin of the Dalek name may remain open for debate for a long, long time. Well, at least for as long as the Daleks are around.