Czar, Czar Away!


[I’m bidding adieu to 2009 in English Major mode.]

Lake Superior State University in Michigan has released its annual List of Words to Be Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.1

While “shovel-ready” topped their list, I was happiest to see their call for banishing all “czars.”

I have always hated this term for a high-level appointee in charge of some (often useless or ineffective) effort.  Specifically, I remember back in 1989, when Bush the Elder appointed William J. Bennett as “Drug Czar.”  Bennett – a bloated, pompous, right-wing sack of shit who moralized about self-discipline and virtue while losing $8 million gambling – sure solved America’s drug problem, didn’t he? 

We have witnessed a veritable czar explosion since then2.  Bush the Elder only had 2 czars, Clinton had 7, Bush the Younger had 35 and, by some counts, Obama has 38!  “W” gave us such crucial civil servants as the Abstinence Czar and the Reading Czar.  Not to be outdone, the Obama administration has appointed a Great Lakes Czar and a Weatherization Czar. 

My personal favorite: Bill Clinton had a Czar Czar (honest!)3 – perhaps to determine what the meaning of “is” is. 

It’s bad enough that presidents create these questionable bureaucratic positions – but why the Hell would they want to call them “Czars”?

Unless you’re a scholar of Russian history, you can probably only name 3 or 4 czars:

  • Ivan the Terrible – need I say more?
  • Peter the Great – an empire builder (literally).
  • Catherine the Great – (technically a czaritza) she came to power through a coup d’état.  NOTE: The story about her dying while having sex with a stallion is an urban legend; but she did have a fatal stroke while sitting on the toilet.4
  • Nicholas II – an autocratic anti-Semite who lost a war with Japan, brutally oppressed his people, and eventually was forced to abdicate, thus laying the foundation for the Bolshevik Revolution.

So… are these despotic monarchs really the best role models that we can think of for people appointed to address an issue?

Lastly, there’s the spelling – is it czar or tsar?  How about csar?  After all, the title, like Kaiser, derives from “Caesar.”  Hey, why not tzar?  If we’re not even sure how to spell it, it’s not surprising that we’re not sure what these Executive Branch appointees actually do

So… what have we learned?

  • Elvis may have been the King, but he wasn’t the first royal personage rumored to have died on “the throne.”

I’d love to see the term “czar” assassinated in 2010 – but frankly, I think that’s wishful thinking.  It’s so entrenched that it’s probably going to be harder to kill than Rasputin.

[Sorry if I morphed from English Major mode to Curmudgeon mode.]

Later… and Happy New Year!


7 Responses to “Czar, Czar Away!”

  1. I agree with you. I have banned the use of “czar” in NC – perhaps more people should know this. Perhaps through this blog, they will.

    Happy New Year.

  2. 2 Peter

    Amen, and I add, ban “uber–(insert word)”, used more in everyday circles. Superlative titles? I thought we were a democratic society. And, come on to Santa Cruz, and let us know when!

  3. 3 jallebrand

    Czar seize our issues! I don’t believe czars address issues as much as dress them up like Prince Potemkin did the crappy villages of Ukraine for Czarina Caterina II. Happy New Year.

  4. 4 ted

    I don’t know that one, but hum a few czars and I’ll fake it.

    I nominate a phrase I heard on TV a couple of times. The White House hates the word “recession,” so last year they called it a “jobless recovery.” Nice one!

    • [Full disclosure: Ted and I discussed this face-to-face over lunch at the Sushi House on Pico. Yes, an actual conversation.]

      Well, as you said to me, a “jobless recovery” reminds you of “non-alcoholic beer.” I’d say it’s more like a sexless honeymoon (not, I admit, a phrase in common usage).

  5. 6 ted

    OMG! (2005?) The first over-used, useless phrase of the new decade …(drum roll)

    … “connected dots.” This is something like a “no brainer” (1986). Or a “slam dunk” (1991) It’s a conclusion so easy to figure out, you didn’t even have to connect the dots – the dots are already connected!

    Common over-usage: apparently they shouldn’t have let the Christmas Day Terrorist on that plane, because his dots were connected.

    Do I have to draw you a diagram?

    • Yeah… I think I remember “connected dots” from right after 9/11. In the same way that I question whether the Russian royal family should be a model for government leadership, I question whether Highlights for Children should provide our metaphor for dealing with terrorists.

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