The linguistics of czardom

“Czar” used to be a term of abuse. What changed?

A question posed to me by Tom Schelling (see the post above for the relevant substantive discussion):

Since when did the term “czar” get to be a general-purpose and unjudgmental term for someone given absolute and somewhat irregular authority over some institution or policy area? “Czar” used to be a pejorative, reflecting the image of Russia as the archetype of tyranny; when people around the turn of the last century called Speaker Reed “Czar Reed,” it was as if they were calling him “Fuerer Reed” or “the Ayatollah Reed.”

Here’s my guess, which I offer for the criticism of those who know more. The first non-pejorative use of “czar” was in reference to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s role as Commissioner of Baseball following the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Landis was given virtually autocratic power in order to reassure the public and strike fear into anyone in baseball who might think about corrupting the game as Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates had corrupted it. In that context, the title “czar” made a kind of sense: organized baseball wanted a terrifying ruler.

I’m not familiar with subsequent uses of “czar” before the unfortunate case of the “drug czar.” Anyone who can fill in the history is invited to send a note.

Update: Several readers pointed to the various czars of the Nixon and Ford Administrations, including James Schlesinger, William Simon, and Frank Zarb as Autocrats of All the Energies. So that’s two topics — energy and drugs — where despotism was tried and failed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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