Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Here a Czar, There a Czar...

If you've been keeping up with the news about the Obama transition, you might have noticed an awful lot of "czar" talk. From "health czar" to "climate czar" to "urban affairs czar" to "technology czar" to "copyright czar," it seems like there's a czarship for every policy area in the new administration. And even though the proposal for a "car czar" stalled on Capitol Hill, expect that pirate-friendly rhyme to make headlines again in 2009.

I had the chance to delve into the history of czar in American governmental usage for Slate. In the article, I trace how the word moved from a nasty epithet (comparing someone to a despotic Russian emperor) to something a lot more benign: merely referring to a point person in charge of coordinating policy across different agencies. It's had remarkable staying power, especially considering that memories of real-life czars (or tsars, if you prefer the more precise transliteration) have all but disappeared since the Russian Revolution of 1917.

As I suggest in the Slate piece, journalists in particular are attracted to labels of the "X czar" form because they're easier to sink one's teeth into than the clunky administrative titles these appointees actually carry. Obama has announced that Carol Browner has been nominated to the position of Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, but doesn't "climate czar" pack a lot more punch? Some in the press are choosing to call her "climate czarina," but that doesn't seem to command the same authority (perhaps because czarina sounds too much like ballerina).

One question I'm still mulling over is why czar has had so much success in American usage while other titles for foreign potentates like pasha, sultan, raja, and emir have never had much of an impact. Sure, Babe Ruth was nicknamed the Sultan of Swat, but how many other American sultans can you think of? The closest comparison I can think of is mogul, which the Visual Thesaurus tells us originally referred to "a member of the Muslim dynasty that ruled India until 1857." But in American use, mogul is pretty much restricted to ultrarich captains of industry.

Ultimately, I think that czar owes some of its popularity to the fact that it's simply fun to say — that is, if you pronounce it with the Anglicized "z" rather than attempting the more accurate "ts" of tsar. And car czar just doubles the fun. Every time I hear that expression bandied about in the media I can't help thinking of the "Saturday Night Live" skit about the pirate convention where the attendees look for any excuse to indulge in their stereotypical "Arrr!" Their featured guest is, naturally, the actor Peter Sarsgaard.

You can watch a clip of the SNL sketch here or read the transcript here. And if you'd like some background on why our pop-cultural pirates always say arrr, check out Mark Liberman's Language Log posts commemorating "International Talk Like a Pirate Day" here and here. In the meantime, I'm going to go start a grassroots campaign to nominate Peter Sarsgaard for car czar.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 2nd 2009, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Arrr should join Oi in the life-affirming category.

The local prosecutor in charge of drug prosecutions was referred to as the drug czar in the courthouse for a couple years back in the 90's. It never caught on in media reporting or as an official title though.
Sunday January 4th 2009, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
OK, Ben. You've nailed it again!
I love it when a writer takes a subject and stays within the boundaries of the topic.

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