Tsar or Czar?

In the United States, the term “czar” is sometimes used to denote an extraconstitutional layer of Presidential advisers (among other things). When the office bears no resemblance to its ancestor, the word has scant obligation to do so, and so, in that idiosyncratic context, I have no objection to the term. For all other purposes, however, no matter how venerable (in American, it was already standard by the time of our old friends Sheridan’s 1789 and Johnson’s 1828; on the other side of the pond, Fowlers 1919 shrug their shoulders, and the elder Fowler deemed the whole business beneath his notice in Modern English Usage) this spelling of the Russian word for “emperor” seems problematic. Having grown up in England—where “tsar” is standard and “czar” is (it seemed to me) frowned-upon as a barbaric and nonsensical Americanism—I have long found it jarring, because the underlying word is царь. That first letter, the cyrillic ц, is pronounced “ts,” as in “its.” Accordingly, if verity is to be any guide at all, the correct romanization must be “tsar.” Fowler’s 3rd dismisses the whole question with admirably-efficient distaste, offering this terse note under “Czar”: “See Tsar.” 1 And yet czar is very venerable; it predates tsar as a romanization. By centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary says that although the cz- spelling “is against the usage of all Slavonic languages[,] the word was so spelt by [the Austrian ambassador Siegmund] Herberstein, [in his book] Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, 1549, the chief early source of knowledge as to Russia in Western Europe, whence it passed into the Western Languages generally; in some of these it is now old-fashioned; the usual Ger. form is now zar; French adopted tsar during the 19th c. This also became frequent in English towards the end of that century, having been adopted by the Times newspaper as the most suitable English spelling.” 2 It is recent-enough coinage, in fact, that one still find the cz- spelling in Lord Acton’s writings. 3 Even as late as the 1966 Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, tsar is dismissed as no more than a variant of czar. Accordingly, if antiquity is to be any guide at all, czar is perfectly good English. I have already mentioned the idiosyncratic context of American politics, in which even the Grauniad will accept the American spelling. When we need to refer to the emperors of Russia, however, or when we use the word to refer to a European issue, which do we use? What about cases in which the European issue involves a projection of the American sense of the term? We are not entirely without precedents, but they are not altogether helpful. In 1995, the Indian city of Bombay changed its English designation to “Mumbai,” ostensibly in order to remove tension between that and a literal rendering of its name in Marathi (although, it should be noted, at the expense of creating such tension between the English and its Hindi and Urdu name, Bambai). Likewise, in 2001, Calcutta became “Kolkata” in order to match the local Bengali pronunciation. Being something of a stick-in-the-mud, I ignore these changes and call these cities by their traditional names, as, I think, do most people. Likewise, I doubt that many westerners have accepted the edict that Canton is now “Guangzhou.” On the other hand, few have resisted the adjustment from Peking to Beijing, although the Supreme Court, through the pen of Justice Scalia (who is almost as much of a stick-in-the-mud as am I),  used its older name just two terms ago. 4 I am inclined to agree with Skeat that the ts- spelling is an improvement (his 1910 Etymological Dictionary of the English Language calls tsar an improved variant of czar)—but it is not, in my judgment, enough of an improvement to justify the confusion and disruption to settled expectations entailed in changing it this late in the game. Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that “the spelling czar is overwhelmingly predominant in [American English]” outside the academy, and the cz- spelling, as it turns out—no one is more surprised than I am—is not only perfectly good English but more venerable English than the ts- spelling. It turns out that far from being a barbaric Americanism, it is, despite its oddness, the traditional romanization of царь. Accordingly, I am inclined to leave this sleeping dog to lie; I will set aside my previous criticisms will happily accept either form, and, acquiescing in the traditional usage, will prefer czar for my own usage.


  1. The Grauniad Stylebook, coming at it from the other side, is even blunter, writing s.v. “tsar”: “not czar.”
  2. Interestingly, Polish is the only slavic language in which one finds the word czar, and it does not mean the same thing: It means “magic,” whence czary (a spell), czanoksieznik (a magician), and czarodziej (a sorcerer or wizard).
  3. E.g. John Dalberg Lord Acton, Essays on Church and State 43 (Woodruff, ed. 1953); accord, e.g., see also, e.g., 3 John Heneage Jesse, London: Its celebrated characters and remarkable places 345 (Richard Bentley Press of London, publisher to HRH the Queen, 1871); The Vatican and the Kremlin, 25 London Quarterly Review 89, 104 (1866).
  4. “Many of the Government’s efforts to protect our national security are well known. It publicly acknowledges the size of our military, the location of our military bases, and the names of our ambassadors to Moscow and Peking.” General Dynamics Corp. v. United States, 563 U.S. __, __ (2011) (slip op. at 5).