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Czar trek

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 30, 2008 03:22 PM

Ben Zimmer has been exploring the long journey of czar, the word and the office, through American political history.

Czar was used as an insult, he says in Slate magazine, during the 19th century, when Russia's repressive rulers were notorious around the world.

That would all change after the Russian Revolution deposed the last real-life czar in 1917; painful images of imperial repression quickly faded to the background and Communist leaders became the new dictatorial icons. Accordingly, kinder, gentler "czars" made their way into American public life. When Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of baseball in 1920, "czar of baseball" worked just fine for the headline writers. New York had its "boxing czar" (Athletic Commission Chairman William Muldoon) and its "beer czar" (Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Edward Mulrooney).

Following up in his Word Routes column at Visual Thesaurus, Zimmer wonders why czar was our pick to designate a figurative dictator "while other titles for foreign potentates like pasha, sultan, raja, and emir have never had much of an impact." We do use mogul -- "a member of the Muslim dynasty that ruled India until 1857" -- but mostly for captains of industry, not heads of state.

Here's a guess at the reason: Those Eastern rulers, deservedly or not, have a more romantic aura than the militaristic czars of Russia. They may have had absolute power, but we picture them as we've learned about them through pop culture -- Rudolph Valentino as a sheik, Yul Brynner in "The King and I," "Arabian Nights" (ncluding Disney's "Aladdin"), and so on. Czars (or tsars) have been scary since Ivan the Terrible; but sultan and pasha and raja are more likely to conjure up visions of hookahs and harems and elephants than bloody battles. Inaccurate these associations may be, but I suspect I'm not the only Westerner who makes them.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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