All Things Romania

Comrade Detective


I heard about this a few months ago, but I was hoping it was just standard Hollywood talk (i.e. bullshit) and would never come to pass.

Unfortunately, I was wrong as the trailer has now been released.

I suppose the “good news” is that they hired a couple real Romanian actors to add some “authenticity”. And the names of the characters are actually Romanian this time instead of the usual hodgepodge of Russian and other Slavic names.

But the rest of this show looks like complete garbage. I might be wrong, but I saw at least one shot of what looked like modern Timisoara (see the photo), and the premise is obviously completely ridiculous.

And considering just how poorly Romania has been portrayed on American TV in the past, I have a strong feeling that tourists are going to be showing up in Romania for years with crazy images from this TV show in their mind.


Nonetheless, I’ll use the announcement of this TV show to discuss the word “comrade,” something I’ve been wanting to do for over a year.

The English word comrade actually has nothing to do with Communism. It first entered the language more than 400 years ago based on the French version of the Spanish word camarada.

In case your Spanish is rusty, camara simply means “room” (from the Latin “camera” that yes, is the root for the photographic device we all know). Therefore, camarada was “someone who shares a room” with you, the equivalent of the modern English word “roommate.”

So, how in the world did a synonym for “roommate” become the universal word to address a Communist person?

In France, home of the very first Communist society, saying “comrade” was a way to address people as equals instead of all the formal forms like “sir” and “ma’am” (equivalent to dvs in Romanian) and was thus adopted in English by everyone (Communist or not) who wanted to use an egalitarian “title” for people. Then after the formation of the Soviet Union, the Russians started calling everyone “kamarad”, which is from the same root.

But later, Russian Communists started using the word “товарищ”, which in English would be written “tovarish.” And by the time Romania became Communist, they used this word too, spelled in Romanian phonetics as “tovarăș”.

The reason why I’ve been wanting to write about this for so long is that I kept seeing words around here in Moldova that were clearly related. There’s a sign in my local grocery store that mentions “товар” (tovar) but it’s definitely not some relic from the Communist era, so what in the world is going on?

It took me a while to figure it out because “товар” simply means merchandise, so “товарищ” must mean something like “merchant” (Ro: negustator), which you’d think would be the exact opposite of Communist ideology! But my Russian is really not that good, so I did some more digging.

Remember the word băcănie that I wrote about last year? It was adopted into Romanian from Turkish traders that used to visit villages and towns.

Well, those very enterprising Turks also lent the Russian language some words as well, one of which was tavar (merchandise) and the other was tavar ischi, which got flattened into “tovarish” in Russian. And it turns out that “ischi” means “companion”, referring to someone who would ride with you to protect the merchandise from robbers and bandits.

And so “tavar ischi” later became “a friend you can trust” and then from there a kind of comrade in arms and then later “my egalitarian brother/sister” in Communism.

Today, the local version of “comrade” is still used in lots of places around the world. In Russia, it’s the standard form of address between members of the military. In other Slavic languages, it means “companion” or “friend”. In Swedish, it means a work colleague or classmate.

But in English, it retains the old Communist meaning, which is why a group of Hollywood dimwits decided to use it for the name of their new television show.