Final Word

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Does the fact that 22 000 runners took part in the Comrades marathon between Durban and Pietermaritzburg the weekend before last have any political significance?

One might be tempted to think so, considering that in the present-day South Africa the word ‘comrade’ is most often heard when leaders of the ruling ANC alliance address gatherings of their members. Some might even think that the runners were involved in a conspiracy.

It is, however, just a reflection of the fact that the root of the word ‘comrade’ is one of those unbelievably productive ones. The term ‘camera’ – the device for taking pictures of the runners – is, for instance, the closest surviving family member of the original root.

Working our way back from today’s meaning of the word ‘comrade’ as an alternative for close friend, ally or colleague, we arrive at the mid-16th century word ‘camerade’, from the French camarade (originally feminine).

The French in turn got the word from the Spanish word camarada, meaning ‘room mate’ or ‘chamber mate’, which also gave us the slang-like ‘chum’ and ‘crony’.

At the root of it all is the Latin word camera, meaning chamber or room, and along the way also giving us terms like ‘chamber mate’, ‘inner-chamber’, ‘in camera’ for a closed meeting (as in court) and ‘camaraderie’ or ‘comradery’.

Political tradition

The political connotations of the word ‘comrade’, as has become so common in South Africa today, were inspired by the French Revolution of the late 18th century and its rebellion against the titles monsieur and madame – literally meaning ‘my lord’ and ‘my lady’ – used by the ruling nobility at the time. The revolutionaries started using the terms citoyen (masculine) and citoyenne (feminine) to address one another. 

When King Louis XV1 was deposed, he was referred to as Citoyen Louis Capet – Capet referring to the long-ruling French House of Capet, or ‘House of Captain’ – to indicate the loss of his position of special privilege.

As the socialist movement gained momentum in Europe some 50-odd years later, its leaders looked for a term to replace the title discrimination, and to build on the work started by the French Revolution. 

They wanted to get rid of terms like ‘mister’, which derived from ‘master’ and ‘miss’ or ‘missus’ from ‘mistress’, which historically were used when addressing someone of higher social status than yourself, although nowadays used indiscriminately as a more formal form of addressing people.

The Socialist Workers Party of Germany was the first to use the term ‘comrade’, as Kamerad (male) and Kameradin (female), at its establishment in 1875. The word first arrived in English, almost a decade later, in the socialist magazine Justice in 1884.

The term has become mostly associated with communist countries, especially the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries since the 1917 October Revolution in Russia.

Military tradition

However, the use of the term Kamerad and associated words originally started off not in the political sphere, but rather from a German military tradition. It was used as an affectionate form of address among soldiers. The traditional German funeral march for fallen soldiers is then also titled Ich hatt' einen Kameraden (“I had a comrade”).

It found widespread use during World War I, after which the term entered the wider German and even English lexicon, originally mostly among the wide number of ‘Old Fighters’ or war veterans. However, Kamerad was also the address among concentration camp prisoners.

And it is from this military tradition that the running comrades of the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon (89 km) come.

The Comrades marathon was run on 24 May 1921, then still known as Empire Day, and organised by World War I veteran, Vic Clapham, to commemorate the fallen South African soldiers of that war. This year’s event was the 90th time it was run, having only been interrupted for four years during World War II.

Only 48 runners entered for the original race, with only 34 in the end taking part and only 16 succeeded in completing it. This year 22 374 participants entered for the race.

Last word on camera

For the sake of our younger readers, who might only know ‘camera’ as an app on their cell phones, the name of the ‘tool’ with which photographic pictures were first taken, if read in Latin, was ‘room’ or ‘chamber’.

The term ‘camera’ for that apparatus was a shortening of the Latin term camera obscura for ‘dark chamber’. First used in 1708 for a black box with a lens that could project images of external objects, it led to the world’s first ‘picture-taking device’ and the start of photography in 1826.

by Piet Coetzer

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