Ben Zimmer has a Slate article about the use of “X Czar” to mean “official in charge of dealing with X” (“drug czar,” “energy czar,” etc.). There’s all sorts of interesting history in there, but what grabbed me was this:
Czar first entered English back in the mid-16th century, soon after Baron Sigismund von Herberstein used the word in a Latin book published in 1549. The more correct romanization, tsar, became the standard spelling in the late 19th century, but by that time czar had caught on in popular usage, emerging as a handy label for anyone with tyrannical tendencies.
As it happens, Herberstein’s book, Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, is online (you can find versions in other languages linked from the end of the Wikipedia article), and sure enough, he writes “Czar Rhutenica lingua regem significat” ['in the Ruthenian language czar means king'; the entire paragraph is below the cut].
The question is: why on earth did he choose such an odd spelling? (Incidentally, there’s an amusing dispute about the proper rendition of the word at Latin Vicipaedia.) Any ideas?
The full Herberstein passage:
Czar Rhutenica lingua regem significat. cum autem communi Slavonica lingua, apud Polonos, Bohemos, & alios omnes sumpta quadam consonantia, ab ultima, & ea gravi quidem syllaba Czar, Imperator seu Caesar intelligatur: unde omnes qui Rhuteni cum idioma seu literas non callent, item Bohemi, Poloni, atque etiam Slavi regno Hungarico subditi, alio nomine regem appellant,nempe Kral, alii Kyrall, quidam Koroll: Czar autem solum Caesarem, seu Imperatorem dici existimant: unde factum, ut Rhuteni interpretes audientes Principem suum ab externis nationibus sic appellari, coeperunt & ipsi deinceps Imperatorem nominare, nomen que Czar dignius esse quam Regis (licet idem significent) existimant.