[Lgpolicy-list] [lg policy] Forwarded from CHE: Czars in their eyes
haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Oct 31 14:25:44 UTC 2014
Czars in Their Eyes
Boris Godunov, czar of all Russia, 1598-1605
It’s been a big month for the czars.
The White House has appointed Ron Klain as Ebola czar. Not *capo* or *boss,
*but* cz**ar*, the Russian term (also transliterated as *tsar*) related to
Latin *C**aesar *and German *Kaiser. *
What’s with American English and *czar*, concept and word? Is it ours now,
or do we still need to mark it off in some way?
HuffPo and *The Washington Times* deploy the term in roman font without
typographic qualification. NPR has taken a more circumspect view, at least
in its online form, where we’re told “White House Appoints an Ebola ‘Czar’”
—with scare quotes around *czar* as if that word were the scariest part of
the announcement. Kathryn Schulz’s recent *New York Magazine* article is
entitled “America’s Strange Love Affair With the Word
*where italics become the signifier of emphasis and linguistic difference.
In recent decades the White House has been the locus of much czar-making.
Since FDR there have been budget czars and car czars, climate czars and
drug czars. America’s history with the word *czar,* however, stretches back
into the 19th century, back at least as far as 1872, and the appearance
of a work entitled *The Struggles (Social, Financial and Political) of
Petroleum V. Nasby, *republished two years later as *The Moral History of
The title page of *Moral History * announces illustrations by Thomas Nast,
a preface by Charles Sumner, and an extraordinary quotation from the late
Abraham Lincoln: “For the genius to write like Nasby, I would gladly give
up my office.” One is grateful that Lincoln couldn’t and didn’t.
“Nasby” was the humorist David Ross Locke. His book, a satirical account of
American political life (there must be other kinds, but at the moment it’s
hard to imagine what they might be), is written in the sort of dialect
transcription we tolerate (sort of) in Mark Twain and shrink from elsewhere.
The “Prefis” begins “Uv the makin uv books there is no end.” It goes on
Here is Locke on the arrival of President Andrew Johnson in Albany, N.Y.:
“There wuz a immense crowd, but the Czar uv all the Amerikas didn’t get orf
his speech here. The Governor welcomed him, but he welcomed him ez the
Cheef Magistrate uv the nashen, and happened to drop in Lincoln’s name.
That struck a chill over the party, and the President got out uv it ez soon
ez possible. Bein reseeved ez Chief Magistrate, and not ez the great
Pacificator, ain’t His Eggslency’s best holt. It wuz unkind of uv Governor
[Reuben] Fenton to do it. If he takes the papers, he must know that His
Mightiness ain’t got but one speech, and he ought to hev made sich a
reception ez wood hev enabled him to hev got it off. We shook the dust off
uv our feet, and left Albany in disgust.”
That phrase—“the Czar uv all the Amerikas”—feels in tune with at least one
contemporary strand of angry antigovernment sentiment.
The 1870s reference to Lincoln and *czar *would come to look somewhat
different. In 1881, just 16 years after the American president was felled
to the cry of* “Sic semper tyrannis,”* Czar Alexander II, who had
emancipated the serfs 20 years earlier and survived several attempts on his
life in the intervening years, was finally the victim of an assassin’s
bomb. A generation later the Revolution dispatched the last czar and his
David Ross Locke’s 19th-century usage, however, isn’t really dependent on
the history of Boris Godunov and his ilk. The satiric reference points us
in the direction of grandiosity, real or ironically conceived, rather than
But that was then. Today the word *czar *has become so degraded that it
fits almost anything.
Beyond the Beltway, and with more or less irony, almost any position in
middle management can be advertised as *czar* (website czar, direct-mail
czar, and so on), which is a rather grandiose way of saying that one has
direct reports and a budget. There is probably a hamburger-bun czar at a
fast-food establishment within driving distance of where you are.
And so the devolution of czar from Russian emperor to almost anybody,
including just us folks on campus.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, the position of *campus czar*
<http://jobs.cheerwine.com/x/detail/a2drq2mkc9vm> turns out to be not a
euphemism for *provost* or *head football coach* but only an ad placed by
Cheerwine, a soft-drink company. To be this particular kind of *czar* one
must “be outgoing, enjoy socializing with people, and have good
communication and organization skills.” Probably not Nicholas II’s strong
Look around your own campus. You might find an ID czar, a
buildings-and-grounds czar, an alumni-outreach czar. The person overseeing
Greek life could be czar of all the rushes.
I think I’d better stop there.
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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