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Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Do We Use the Term Czar for Someone Involved in American Government?

“Former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams just went to Washington D.C. as the Auto Czar. Czar seems to be an odd term to use for someone involved in American government; I thought it was a Russian ruler. When did this become used by our presidents?” Recently, _________ czar has been a phrase that seems to have worked itself into our common language. The Newton Falls Public Library staff found the question to be intriguing.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines czar in three ways: the first is a ruler or monarch; the second is an autocrat; the final one is considered an informal usage: “An appointed official having special powers to regulate or supervise an activity: . . . an energy czar.” [p. 455]. This seems to fulfill part of our patron’s request. 

The aforementioned book was published in 2000, so we know that the term was in use in this context prior to that year. Continuing our search online, we found that the Los Angeles Times' article (March 5, 2009) President Obama's czar system concerns some by Tom Hamburger and Christi Parsons. "President Nixon may have named the first 'czar' with his appointment of William E. Simon to handle the 1970s energy crisis."

According to Czar Struck: Sorting Through the Misconceptions and Understanding the Implications of an Expanding ‘Czar’ Phenomenon by Kathryn J. Murphy, United States Military Academy, "President Franklin D. Roosevelt originated the concept of the policy czar in American politics. Under his administration, Roosevelt created a 'brain trust' of advisors whom he relied upon for policy-related advice . . . In 1942, political cartoonist, Clifford Berryman depicted Roosevelt's advisors as czars . . . The Nixon administration was the first to actually use the term 'czar' with specific reference to the appointment of a 'Drug Czar' in 1971. This was subsequently followed by a highly controversial 'Energy Czar.' (pp. 1-2)" Murphy cites 32 Obama czars as of January 2010. We were not able to locate a difinitive czar listing from United States Government websites. Others, such as Wikipedia, did list the numbers of U.S. Executive Branch czars for each president from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. According to their listing Ronald Reagan had the least, one.



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