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Tsar vs Czar – What’s the Difference?

29. November 2012 by Lorena 0 Comments

In English, there are two variants on the spelling for the world for old Russian royalty: czar and tsar. But, which is correct and how did each of those variants come to be? The answer comes down to regional influences and from which point in history you decide to take your cue.


It’s a term that has come to refer to people besides Russian leaders. Sometime in the 20th century, in both the US and the UK, “czar” has become an informal name for high-level government officials. At various times in US history, there have been drug czars, transportation czars and even a synthetic rubber czar, whose job it was to coordinate supplies for soldiers during World War II. In the US, the term usually applies to somebody working in the executive branch. In the UK, the term is more general and tends to refer to an official with a narrow area of expertise. By the way, despite the existence of a female form (czarina) US policy czars are always czars, whether they are a man or a woman.


Russia took their leaders’ title from the Latin word “Caesar,” which basically means “emperor.” This eventually evolved into tsar. As followers of our language series know, “ts” is the accepted transliteration for the Russian character “Ц”. The c-z-a-r spelling appears to be of Polish origin. 


While there are a few sources that say either is correct, there are more that stridently insist that one version or the other is the only right one. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cz” should not be used as a combination when transliterating Slavic languages, but that many consider “tsar” old-fashioned. Having no fear of appearing traditional, UK newspaper The Guardian solely uses “tsar,” presumably in the spirit of linguistic correctness. The manual adhered to by virtually all US newspapers, The AP Stylebook, on the other hand, says that it’s always “czar” and never “tsar.” To muddy the waters a bit more, one Russian history forum user says that, in the New York Times crossword puzzle, if not its news pages, the spelling invariably shows up as “tsar.”


Which should you use? Unless you’re a journalist or a linguist, neither is likely to start an international incident. Pick the spelling that’s easiest on your eyes, and know that, no matter which you pick, someone out there thinks you are doing it right.


Speaking of easy on the eyes… when was the last time you logged in to see our newest Russian beauties?


Photo: J. Elliot