Words in the News

czar

© GOODSHOT
Written by Liz Potter

Dame Louise Casey has urged the government to pause the roll-out of its troubled Universal Credit benefits system for fear that families hanging on by their fingernails could be pushed over the edge of the cliff by delays to payments. Those with long memories may recall that Dame Louise, then just plain Louise Casey, first came into the public eye when she was appointed head of the government’s Rough Sleepers Unit by Tony Blair back in 1999. The media quickly christened her the ‘homelessness czar’ and she has since been given other unofficial titles related to her jobs in various areas of social policy, including ‘anti-social behaviour czar’ and ‘respect czar’.

The term czar (or tsar which is slightly less frequent) was first applied to a person responsible for advising on and coordinating public policy back in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton appointed a drug czar. The beauty of the term as far as the media is concerned is that it is very short and can have any other noun slapped in front of it to indicate the area of policy involved. So we have border czars and counterterrorism czars, pay czars and cybersecurity czars; even grammar czars (I think that one’s a joke, though).



Of course the word czar (or tsar) goes back a long way further than the 1990s. Most commonly applied to the rulers of Russia before 1917, as well as to other Eastern European monarchs, it comes from the Latin ‘Caesar’, as does the German equivalent ‘Kaiser’.

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Liz Potter

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