When things get “hairy,” U.S. Presidents like to appoint czars.

Presently, Obama is considering an Ebola czar, but the executive branch post is said to date back to Woodrow Wilson, who appointed an industry czar during World War I. The term, of course, refers to no official title; it has served as a media shorthand for these particular policy coordinators. Most famous perhaps is Nixon’s drug czar. Among many others, FDR had his rubber czar, LBJ his poverty czar, Clinton his AIDS czar, Bush his terrorism czar–the list truly goes on.


Historically, czars–or properly, tsars–were Russian emperors, technically beginning with Ivan III in 1462, formally adopted by Ivan IV in 1547, and ending with the overthrow of Nicolas II during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The word was adopted from Slavic languages, like the Old Church Slavonic tsesari, which ultimately represented the Latin Caesar. The Slavic tongues likely borrowed the word from Germanic languages, such as Gothic’s kaisar (cf. German’s Kaiser), where the term referred to a “king” or “emperor.”  And according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word “is generally held to be the earliest Latin word adopted in Germanic.”

The spelling is unusual. As the OED observes:

The spelling with cz- is against the usage of all Slavonic languages; the word was so spelt by Herberstein, Rerum Moscovit. Commentarii 1549, the chief early source of knowledge as to Russia in Western Europe, whence it passed into the Western Languages generally…


The original Caesar, of course, refers to Julius Caesar. In Ancient Rome, Caesar was his “cognomen,” initially a nickname that evolved into a hereditary addition. The original meaning of Caesar is as lost as his empire, but there is a tradition that it was taken from caesaries, “long, flowing hair,” (Traupman) either due to the fact that Caesar was born with a full head of hair or that his family line was, as was the man himself, prone to balding.

Others argue that the root of the name is from the past participle form of the Latin verb “to cut,” caesus, referring to the legend that the future emperor was “cut out” from his mother’s womb.

Today, a C-section, or Caesarian section is reputedly so derived from the legend–though improbable, as it would have been lethal to the very mother that was alive well into the height of Caesar’s power. And the Caesar in Caesar Salad is named for one, Caesar Cardini, whose given credit for his eponymous dish–concocted, perhaps surprisingly, in Tijuana.

Salad? There was a food czar for that under FDR. Mexico? Yep, Clinton and Obamaborder czars. And these conflicting accounts–how do we regulate all this intelligence? Bush appointed regulatory and intelligence czars. Now, if only the president needed someone to coordinate all these words…

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9 thoughts on “czar

    1. Panjandrum! (We may be seeing this word again soon.) Jordan Shipley: “In 1755 a man named Macklin claimed he could repeat anything, after it once. Samuel Foote at once rattled off: ‘And there were presenting the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the Grand Panjandrum himself, why the little round bottom at top.’ History does not record whether it was successfully repeated; ut the word ‘Panjandrum’ was repeated again and again, as the mock title of a man who deems himself the embodiment of all excellencies.”


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