You may feel that this column has already said a lot about the Labour government, and yet here is another word whose newly-introduced sense in Britain is directly traceable to it. But the change of government in May 1997 did represent a sea change in British politics which has been reflected to some extent in the language of political discourse.
Another linguistic force in British politics has been a significant movement towards the US model over the past decade: spin doctors have long been present and under the influence of the Labour government American-style political conventions, confirmation hearings and party lists are among the transatlantic innovations either in place or under discussion. It is hardly surprising that the language of US politics comes with them.
The Labour government has just advertised for applications to take on a new role coordinating the “war against drugs” (another term which is an import from the US), who was immediately dubbed the “Drugs Tsar” by the press, copying American journalists’ description of General Barry McCaffrey and of his predecessor William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education.
But tsar is not at all a common term in the UK for what might in tabloid-speak have been called instead a supremo. In Britain, as in the USA, the phrase is journalese (conveniently short for snappy headlines), almost certainly destined to be restricted to the popular press, with serious papers loftily distancing themselves from it by enclosing it in those useful little quarantining quotation marks.
As another orthographical aside, the Guardian newspaper has almost alone imported the standard US spelling, czar, the original transliteration of the Russian word into English which is considered old-fashioned in British English; all the other newspapers and journals I’ve seen use tsar, particularly The Times, which was the first to make the change near the end of last century.
In American English the word had gained its figurative sense — of a dictatorial overseer or someone with absolute power crushing out dissent with an iron heel — at least by 1866, though the source of the OED’s first citation suggests it was in use even earlier. This may indicate that its origin lay in reference and reaction to the particularly repressive and autocratic reign of Nicholas I, which was bookended by the Decembrist movement of 1825 and the Crimean War of 1853-6. As it happens, by this time the Russian monarch was no longer officially known as tsar but imperator, “emperor”, a term introduced by Peter the Great, though the older term remained in common informal use in Russia right up to the Revolution of 1917, so we may be forgiven for translating the formal Russian title of “emperor of all the Russias” as “tsar of all the Russias”.
In origin the word is just a modified form of Caesar, the title of many of the later Roman leaders, which seems to have been introduced into Russian by way of a Germanic language, and which led also to the equivalent modern German form kaiser.
Whatever its origins, its associations with the knout, authoritarian bureaucracy, serfdom and autocracy makes it hardly appropriate for someone whose job will involve much discussion and persuasion to achieve a commonality of approach (a process which General McCaffrey likens to “herding ducks with a broom”). We really ought to find a better word.
[July 1998: As an update to that article, I have to report that the Guardian has now fallen in line with other British journals by using the spelling tsar. This month, the British government announced a scheme to re-house the homeless who are sleeping rough on the streets. The person to be appointed to oversee the project was, perhaps inevitably, dubbed the streets tsar by the press, an uneuphonious compound that I would dearly like to think will not survive.]
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