Use of the Word Comrade

By Darin Sullivan

The following is an update on an article I wrote for the NSW Fire Brigade Employees’ Union / FBEU Journal (NSW Firefighter) in 2007.

Firefighters and union members often hear the word ‘Comrade’. Some use the term with pride, others cringe when they hear it and think it is old fashioned. The term  ‘comrade’ gets a bit of a bad wrap these days and does have wider and more positive meanings.

Definitions of comrade
Wikipedia defines the term comrade as: used to mean “friend”, “mate”, “colleague”, or “ally”, and derives from the Iberian Romance language term camarada,[1] literally meaning “chamber mate”, from Latincamera “chamber” or “room”.[2] A political use of the term was inspired by the French Revolution, after which it grew into a form of address between socialists and workers. Ever since the Russian revolution, popular media in the Western World have often associated it with Communism..

The term comes from the French ‘camarade’, which in Old French translated to roommate. This came from the Old Spanish word camarada, meaning much the same thing as the French version but especially related to companions in a barracks. Camarada was derived from camara for room, which originally was the Late Latin word for chamber.

The first recorded entry of it’s use into the English language was in the 1500s.
The word comrade does not originate from the Russian language, as many people believe and clearly does not have to be confined to communism.

The word ‘comrade’ relates to us as firefighters and Australian workers in many ways, but also within the Trade Union movement.

At our FBEU 1996 Annual General Meeting (22/11/96), debate on this issue was included on the agenda. The motion which was carried at that meeting was as follows:

“Agenda item 2. Adoption of the fraternal address of “comrade” State Committee of Management recommendation:

That the undated members’ correspondence questioning the Union’s use of the term comrade and proposing that the Union instead revert to the use of the terms brother or sister, as the case may be, be received, and that this meeting confirm as policy this Union’s adoption of the use of the fraternal address of comrade due to it being standing ACTU and NSW Labor Council policy, its gender neutrality and primarily, it being considered the most appropriate fraternal term for union members generally, and firefighters particularly, due to its most literally accepted meaning of ‘a fellow, mate or equal in work or play or fighting’.”

So the term ‘comrade’ has been well debated and accepted as policy within the FBEU, and this serves as an interesting historical look as to why many FBEU members use the term.

As firefighters we share a rare camaraderie. We work together, we cook, eat and sleep together. This closeness manifests itself into a family that is recognized worldwide. As a collective, a group of members belonging to the same trade union, we share a strong need to protect each other and “the family”, possibly more than any other type of Union. In referring to our brothers and sisters using the term “comrade” many of us believe that we are bestowing a respect only possible to give to those who you would give all to protect.

This is the reason you may hear your work mates and union officials use the term ‘comrade’. We do so to protect and maintain tradition, to apply our democratic Union policy and use of a term that is non-gender specific (ie Brother) and as a show of pride and strength.

So next time you hear the phrase “comrade”, don’t think that you are being conditioned to communism – that’s an inaccurate and unfair generalisation fed to society by right wing media. Appreciate that you are being referred to as a friend, ally, as a brother or sister – by someone who stands side by side with you, no matter what side of politics you believe in.

Hopefully by explaining some of the history about the origins of the term ‘comrade’ can help people feel better about using it.


Darin Sullivan

About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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