czar, tsar

 Having seen an article about the UK's new "domestic abuse tsar", I tweeted

As you may have noticed from my 'mental health' diatribes, I have a particular sensitivity to compound nouns that rely on the reader/hearer to discern from context/cultural knowledge that the compound means sort of the opposite (another obsession) of what it is supposed to indicate.

This led Shane Street to ask: "Is there an AmE/BrE split over the use of czar/tsar?"

The answer is YES. The following GloWBE corpus table also shows that two countries particularly like to use Russian autocratic titles for government advisors:

The GloWBE data is mostly from 2012. A search on the News on the Web corpus indicates that tsars/czars have been getting less common since 2010, when that ever-renewing corpus starts (despite Russian autocrats seeming more popular than ever with certain politicians).

Multiple spellings are often available in English for words that have been transliterated from another alphabet, in this case the Cyrillic Russian царь. It's not uncommon for different spelling variants to catch on in different places, as we've seen for yog(h)urt, for example.

The OED entry for this word has not been fully updated since 1915, but they did add the new government advisor meaning in 2001, noting that it is "Originally U.S."

Originally U.S. A person appointed by a government to recommend and coordinate policy in a particular area and to oversee its implementation. Usually with modifying word denoting the area of responsibility.
1933   S. Walker Night Club Era 167   There are several versions of why Mulrooney quit the job to become the state beer ‘Czar’.
1942   Amer. Observer 2 Feb. 8/1   From June 1940 until the recent appointment of Donald M. Nelson as war production czar, the American defense effort was best described in terms of red tape, delay, buck passing, and lack of authority.
1959   Madison (New Jersey) Eagle 30 Apr. 1/1   New Jersey's newly-created ‘czar’ of transportation..announced Thursday night that he expected to have a solution to the commuting crisis worked out in from six months to a year.
1977   Time Jan. 35/1   The job as energy czar will be Schlesinger's fifth Government post.
1989   Economist 25 Mar. 47/2   Bennett's first move, after he was sworn in as his country's drug tsar, was to select Washington, its capital, as a test case for his new crusade.
2001   Observer 25 Mar. i. 2/3   Equal pay ‘tsars’ will shame sexist employers into giving women a fair wage under a government action plan to root out workplace discrimination. 

While some of the US examples are very early, it did seem to make its biggest splash in the 1970s, continuing into the 80s and 90s. The Corpus of Historical American English shows a lot of czars in the 1950s, but almost all of them are from historical fiction. During/right after the Russian Revolution, the tsar spelling seemed to do very well in AmE.

 In the OED's examples, all the AmE spellings of the non-Russian sense are czar and, from the first BrE sighting in 1989, the BrE spellings are tsar

To avoid the Russian referents, we can look for tsar/czar preceded by a noun. The corpora I'm looking at here are not strictly comparable. COHA is American English from lots of different sources (the Grampa Czars there are all from a piece of fiction), while the Hansard is the UK parliamentary record.  But at least they show what the two countries have had czars/tsars for and the recency of the UK's use of the term. 

You can also see there the BrE use of -s plurals in noun modifiers (drugs tsar, pensions tsar, streets tsar), which AmE doesn't allow (drug czar).

Why czar/tsar? Why not king/queen or some other title? I'd assume that some of the reason is that the term is no longer in use for actual governors. King/queen are also very much used (at least in AmE) in commercial contexts, e.g. the Mattress King or Dairy Queen. This article (for which thanks, Tony Thorne) notes that tsar is "media shorthand". Perhaps the 'foreignness' and 'long-ago-ness' of czar/tsar also helps with the disconnect within the compound. A Mattress King is decidedly pro-mattress, so maybe a "Drug(s) King" would be too. Less familiarity with czars/tsars makes it easier not to read "Drug(s) Tsar" as "King of the Drugs".

One wonders, given the metaphors of the war on drugs and the war on terrorism that the leaders of the charges weren't called generals or admirals or field marshals or something. 

Anyhow, I shall not be calling Nicole Jacobs the Domestic Abuse Tsar.  Her official title is worse, though: Domestic Abuse Commissioner. Like she COMMISSIONS DOMESTIC ABUSE. Please, no! Can we think of any better titles to offer her?

PS: answering questions from the comments, here's what happens when you look for "Russian czar/tsar" in the 2012 data:

And here's looking for czar/tsar with Ni* to get the name of a famous one:


So, Americans (at that point at least), are using the ts- spelling more than the cz- spelling for actual monarchs. Perhaps it seems like a "more foreign" spelling so it's used for more foreign things—though you think any word starting with cz- would be seen as very foreign. But the cz- spelling is definitely AmE.


  1. Speaking of Mattress King, here is a classic.

  2. My Facebook memories tell me that some years ago there was a Minister for Modern Slavery (and back in the day, Anti-Slavery International had something on its website about putting slavery on the curriculum), rather ambiguous, I thought!

  3. I always thought of drug's tsar as possessive (an adjective?) rather than plural?

    1. Not possessive. Not spelt with an apostrophe. BrE is very happy to have plurals in such positions. cf greetings cards, drugs problem, pensions row, ...

  4. Strictly speaking, Ms Jacobs should be a tsarina, shouldn't she?

  5. Forgot my comment-catching comment... Don't mind me...

  6. I'm an American who has studied Russian, attained some proficiency and traveled in Russia. I tend to use the spelling Czar and pronunciation "Zar" when referring to these American or British political advisers. This would include John Kerry who has been named as Joe Biden's "climate czar" or "special envoy on climate change"-as an aside I'd say he's a good choice for it!!

    If referring to pre-1917 Russian emperors I will use the spelling "Tsar" and the "ts" phoneme while speaking English.

    There were other things. When traveling in Russia I first encountered kefir years before I ever saw it in the US. Pronounce "Kye-feer", I ended up calling it "ke-feer" when I starting seeing it in health food stores. Years later my hippie friends (much older than me) revealed that they had been calling it "kee-fir" since before I was born.

    Hippies!! Forgive me, as I don't know how to do that phonetic spelling you linguists use.

  7. Re: "Domestic Abuse Commissioner"

    And here in the US, we have the "Violence Against Women Act".

  8. Is there a similar split when actual Russian monarchs are being referred to?

    1. I'll stick a PS in the blog post to show the evidence, since I can't put a screenshot in here.

    2. Thanks, interesting! I think you may have accidentally posted the same screenshot twice? The Tsar/Czar Ni* one is missing...

    3. Oops! Thanks for mentioning it. Corrected now.

  9. Heather A. in Chicago30 November, 2020 14:04

    This usage annoys me, too. Why not "boss," "chief," or even "lead" (though I don't enjoy that last, either). "Foreperson"? Interesting theory about why they don't just use "king" or "queen," but I for one would feel compelled to stop if I ever passed, say, Taco Tsar.

  10. Does the Cz spelling hint at the pre-Italian original Caesar?

    1. That is indeed the etymology of it. Like German Kaiser.

  11. Of compound nouns sort-of meaning their opposite, my favourite is Police and Crime Commissioner — which sounds like it should involve a massive conflict of interest.

    1. I am reminded of the politician Denis Howell. During the long hot dry summer of 1976 he was given the position of Minister for Drought (although many thought his position should be Minister for Rain, apparently). When the drought gave way to heavy rain he was made Minister of Floods.

  12. My theory for why czar fills this spot is that they have a reputation for being brutal, and the title is usually attributed to someone who is going to crack down on some issue.

  13. This article from 2008 adds some interesting historical information. The "CZAR" spelling appears to originate from Baron Sigismund von Herberstein's 1549 Latin work Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, so it is presumably using German orthographical conventions, where both "c" and "z" have signified the /ts/ sound. "TSAR" is a simple phonetic rendition of the Russian pronunciation into English orthography that seems to have become popular in the nineteenth century. More discussion in the comments of this article.

  14. There are two different standards for transliteration of Russian into Latin script (well, there are actually more than two but they fall in to two groups). One translates the letter as "ts" and the other translates the letter as "cz" (or just "c" if followed by certain vowels).

    The British system (there is even a British Standard 2979:1958 which is the main system used by the OUP) uses "ts" and, generally speaking, follows most of the French rules for transliterating cyrillic script. This spelling is also used in Russian passports. It is also used by the American Library Association and Library of Congress.

    There is a separate spelling "cz" which is from the Russian GOST institute - the Russian equivalent of the British Standards Institute (I don't know the US equivalent). This stems from the ISO standard back in the 1950s that was used for the translation of scientific literature.

    Interestingly, there are some differences between the French standards and the British standards, notably the letter Ч "Tch" - the first letter of, for example, the composer Tchaikovsky.

    The Soviet Union used to use the French transliteration for passports but nowadays Russia uses the British/American transliteration so if Mr Tchaikovsky had a Russian passport nowadays, he would be known as Mr Chaikovskii

    1. I recall that some UK paper, I think the Financial Times, spells the composer's name that way.

    2. I was a library cataloguer for many years. At one time, the agreed conventions required us to start using the spelling Chaikovski'i, but presumably this proved too confusing for library users, so after some years we were allowed to revert to the 'traditional' English version. (Though I note that Chekhov was transliterated as Tchekhov when his works first appeared in English.)

  15. I am in charge of the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) lab at work. I introduce myself as the SAR Tsar. Generally gets a smile.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)