« Just the opposite | Main | Asked and answered »

Down with the czar

We’re a nation at war, and metaphor is our weapon.

Bob Erlandson, a former Sun colleague and a man so desperate for amusement that he reads this blog regularly, expresses a distaste for the widespread use of the word czar to describe public officials.*

We have had so many of them that it is sometimes hard to remember that the country was founded — somebody did talk to you in school about 1776 and all that, right? — in a revolt against monarchy and absolute power. So our fondness for calling various bureaucrats as czars seems puzzling.

Perhaps we balance it out by depriving these czars and czarinas of anything resembling real power or authority. The title czar is, in practical terms, an empty metaphor.

As such, it dovetails nicely with our taste for bogus metaphors in public life. Lyndon Johnson gave us a war on poverty, which we have, at best, fought to a draw. Perhaps he sought to distract us from the literal and highly unsatisfactory war in Indochina.

Since then, we have declared war on drugs. The victors in that combat seem to be mainly the people who get wages and benefits working as correctional officials for our ever-expanding prison population.

Our triumphs in wars on poverty and drugs are now succeeded by the war on terrorism. (Federal office-holders call it the “war on terror,” but terror is the effect; terrorism and terrorists are the causes.) It appears to be a little early for a declaration of victory there.

Not that I’m hostile to metaphor in principle, or to metaphors that inspire the populace. That is what rhetoric, at its best, accomplishes. But metaphor works best when grounded in reality.


* Feel free to indicate in a comment your preference for the form tsar.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:27 AM | | Comments (11)


I had a friend in college who, for the longest time, insisted on using the term fascist to describe anyone he thought was being unnecessarily rude or disagreeable with him. I tried on numerous occasions to reason with him through semantics, but he seemed to think that the term's meaning and usage could be stretched because it's not in use anymore. He then started using it in his writing, and I had to crack down on it.

It is interesting how different spellings of words can diverge semantically. The spelling tsar is well established in Britain, and its use is becoming standard in American scholarship when the word refers to the autocrats of the Russian Empire, but I would find it jarring to see this spelling (e.g., "drugs tsar") used for an American official. The spelling czar, by the way, was a 16th-century transliteration mistake introduced by Sigismund Herberstein, the Habsburgs' ambassador to Moscow. In no Slavic language does the digraph "cz" represent the "ts" sound of the Russian word.

I am glad that I haven't seen the czar metaphor for some time in our daily type. I used to see it so much that I wondered if it was actually their unofficial title.

You mentioned both male and female variants of czar, but do you know what the czars' children are called?


Thank my elementary school music teacher, Mr. Bowermeister, for that joke.

Recall the Hapsburgs! Also the Hohenzollerns and the Medicis. I've long wanted to be a Czarina ( or Tsarina) not unlike Lydia the Poisoner in I Claudius, who wanted to be a Goddess.

I like making this argument by nodding to its logically illogical extremes:

— "Junta" as slang for "administration"
— "Jihad" for any war
— "Burgermeister" for "mayor"

I wonder if it's time to retire "chief" as a lazy synonym for leader, director, administrator, president, etc.

My preference is for 'geezer.'

According to the OED, orthographically identical to "czar."*

*No, just a late 1 April post.

People really use "burgermeister" for mayor?

All I can think of when I see that is "Burgermeister Meisterburger" from the Rankin and Bass "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" and giggle. . .

From today, a caption: John McCain spoke in Memphis for the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Meanwhile, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for a cabinet-level poverty czar.

"Czar" is so silly a term that it's used by sports(!) announcer Marv Albert in joking reference to on-air partner/basketball analyst Mike Fratello, "the Czar of the Telestrator."

Usually these things rise and fall with the life span of a hit single.

For example, I can remember when despots were called "ayatollahs" for a few years. And here in the Pacific Northwest, the term "bhagwan" briefly came into vogue as a synonym for any charismatic but eccentric teacher.

For mayor, should it be "burgermeister" or "hizzoner"?

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected