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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #77 (article first published : 2007-09-8)

One of the more embarrassing aspects of living in South Africa is that we have our very own Communist Party. Not just your lunatic fringe-group, but a fully-fledged political entity, and indeed one of the three legs of the so-called Tripartite Alliance that rules this country.

However, the real irritation arises not so much from their daft beliefs as from the words they use to comfort their sorry little souls. The title of this piece is an example, a Portuguese catch-phrase meaning “The struggle continues”, and it gets trotted out from time to time by speakers at public gatherings. What struggle? And why Portuguese, for Heaven’s sake?

But the words that really offend me are the c-words, of which there are three. The first of these is “comrade”. This is a rough translation of the Old Russian word “tovarishchi”, meaning originally “business associates”, but broadened by Lenin and his fellow-psychopaths to mean “companion, familiar, fellow” as well as “drinking companion, comrade in arms”. It’s this last connotation that gives the word its appeal – the suggestion that its users are involved in a noble struggle, and hold the moral high ground. I am, however, quite sure that Comrade Stalin would have addressed any one of his countrymen as “Comrade” just before he sent him to Siberia or had him shot, so its use doesn’t inspire me much.

The second of the offensive c-words is the much-loved “cadre”. Derived from the Latin “quadrum”, a square, it means “a basic structure, especially the nucleus of a military unit, any nucleus of key personnel” (Chambers Dictionary). It has acquired the additional meaning of “a group of activists in a revolutionary, originally Communist, party.” The essence of all these meanings is their plurality – a cadre is a group. Sadly, and to my immense irritation, it can now mean “a member of such a group”, and it is often used now to mean one person. That annoys me, just as “media” does when it is used as a singular noun – “the media is…” The word “cadre” is related to “squad” and “squadron”, both of which imply a number of people and would never be used to indicate one man.

The third and last c-word to rouse my ire – and the trigger for this article - is rather similar. It’s the word “cohort”, and like “cadre” it indicates a group. Its Latin original “cohors” meant the tenth part of a legion, but the numbers varied considerably, as a legion consisted of anything from about four thousand to six thousand men. (Interestingly, the word is related to the Latin word for a garden (“hortus”), the idea of an enclosed space having been extended to mean an enclosed multitude, or a company of soldiers.)

The word “cohort” caught my eye in a recent article in the Johannesburg Sunday Times about the miseries of Zimbabwe, where more than two thousand businessmen and retailers have been arrested for non-compliance with President Mad Bob Mugabe’s arbitrary price controls. The story went on: “The executives are also accused of conspiring to bring down the government in cohorts with the US and Britain.”

For a few moments this created for me a wonderful vision of massed ranks of shopkeepers, backed up by the US 82nd Airborne on the one hand and the Grenadier Guards on the other, marching on Zimbabwe’s capital in a frenzied outburst of Neo-colonialism. Not so, alas; what the writer meant was “in cahoots with”. No dictionary seems to know where this curious word “cahoot” comes from. It is agreed that it’s of American origin, dating from 1829, and means a company or partnership. Nowadays, as far as I can tell, it is used only in the phrase “in cahoots with”, and it has disreputable implications – a conspiracy is implied, and somebody is up to no good.

The newspaper attributes the article in question to The Times (London). I find this hard to believe; however far The Times may have fallen from its earlier supremacy, it cannot be possible that one of its employees wrote that sentence and lived. Some South African compositor must have set it up, and to him I am deeply grateful for a good giggle.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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