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How did the word come into English with the two variants czar and tsar? The 'ts' spelling is a transliteration of the Russian 'царь', but the 'cz' spelling is what interests me more. To me it looks Polish, where 'cz' is common, but is pronounced as English 'ch'. Where did this second form come from?

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'tsar' and 'czar' are pronounced identically in English /zar/. –  Mitch Sep 27 '11 at 18:54
While pronounced identically, the metaphorical ones, i.e. governmental officials with supra-departmental responsibilities— are invariably czar in the U.S.: AIDS czar, counterterrorism czar, drug czar. The British seem to accept tsar for both types: telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/conservative/9550058/… . –  choster Feb 7 '13 at 1:13
I agree with Ray. When I was younger the common use was "Czar". In fact, I have since wondered why it has been "changed" to "Tsar". –  user45108 May 29 '13 at 22:39
@Matt: I disagree with the OED then. Word initial /ts/ is not in the repertoire of any variety of native English. Many native English speakers are able to pronounce it but not in any native English word. –  Mitch May 30 '13 at 1:59
@Mitch: I'm a native (British) English speaker, and I've always pronounced it /tsar/. Disagreeing with the OED on matters of how English is used in practice is a brave (and usually foolish) thing to do - particularly when you are asserting that something never happens. Also I don't know where you got the notion that word-prefix /ts/ doesn't exist. We also have tsunami: (both /tso͞oˈnämē/ and /so͞oˈnämē/) –  Matt May 30 '13 at 15:36

5 Answers 5

Here’s what the OED says:

The Slavonic word ultimately represents Latin Cæsar, but came . . . through the medium of a Germanic language in which the word had the general sense ‘emperor’ . . . The spelling with cz- is against the usage of all Slavonic languages; the word was so spelt by . . . the chief early source of knowledge as to Russia in Western Europe, whence it passed into the Western Languages generally; in some of these it is now old-fashioned; the usual German form is now zar ; French adopted tsar during the 19th cent. This also became frequent in English towards the end of that century, having been adopted by the Times newspaper as the most suitable English spelling.

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This NGram shows how tsar came to be the dominant spelling almost a century ago, confirming my suspicion that czar is the older version. It's probably only been used at all in recent decades to deliberately evoke the sense of talking about something very long ago. –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '11 at 19:06
According to COCA, czar is the dominant spelling. As in drug czar. I doubt that's meant to evoke anything resembling Tsarist Russia. –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 27 '11 at 19:52
-1 Also I'm sorry but I doubt this is 'fair use' of the OED given that it is entirely copy-pasted. –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 27 '11 at 19:54
@FumbleFingers The 'fact', is that czar is currently the dominant spelling and that is according to a balanced corpus, not google books. The Guardian Style Guide cannot simply prescribe otherwise. I suggest people who agree with your original and erroneous comment on the usage of czar search this corpus for themselves. –  z7sg Ѫ Sep 28 '11 at 1:28
@z7ss: I showed you what I got from NGrams, which is a couple of million written instances, and which agrees with my gut feel. Here is the picture over 250 years. Czar is more common in total, but definitely not over the last 50 years. If you have different data, let's see it. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 3:54

Czar is not the only older form...

In 17th century texts both Czar and Tzar occurs. In this account of diplomacy from 1669 - A Relation of Three Embassies From his Sacred Majestie Charles II - : both forms occur, 'the czar' 5 times and 'the tzar' 56 times

But amongst all the Princes of Europe, that, by their congratulations of his Re-establishment, seemed ardently to aspire at His Alliance, the Tzar of Moscovy had the most equitable pretentions. ― p 2

..by Moscovie are ordinarily understood all the Provinces united under the Obedience of the Czar.
― p 26

'the Czar' occurs in 5 places between pages 26 and 47 while 'the Tzar' is the only form in the rest of the book, as well in the index. This might reflect the usage of two different writers..

'Tzar' is also used in a Swedish text from the same period: Joh. Widekindi. (1671) Thet Swenska i Ryssland Tijo åhrs Krijgz-Historie:

och then Store Herre Tzar och Storfurste Michael Fedorowitz ― p 883 ...

As late as in James Bell (1850) A System of Geography, Popular and Scientific, both Tzar and Czar occurs (5 times each)

and in New Monthly Magazine volume 78 (1846)

'the czar' twice (244, 245)
'the tzar' five times (p 26, 38, 31; 75, 90)
'the tsar' twice (31, 38) [A Summer in Russia Chap VI]


It seems the spelling 'czar' was first used by Sigmund Freiherr von Herberstein who was twice envoy of the Holy Roman Emperor to Russia. In 1549 life he published his notes about the lands he visited in Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii.

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 -p18

von Herberstein spoke Slovenian, so it might be fair to assume that spelling he used would be a Slovenian approximation of word he heard (or read).

This is pure speculation on my part but maybe what he heard was some Russian pronounciation of OCS цѣсарь, perhaps [tsəsar]

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The spelling 'czar' was almost universally used in the U.S. well into my adulthood. I am now in my 80's. During WWII we had various people in the government running imnportant programs who were dubbed 'czar' of their program, whether it had to do with manpower or some industry or price controls. The word morphed into 'tsar', which my limited knowledge of Slavic languages would suggest is closer to the Russian, sometime later, probably gradually through the '50's to 70's--much more recently than a century ago. I can recall noting the change and wondering why. If the OED doesn't cite usage to indicate when the change took place, I don't know who would.

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welcome to the Stack Exchange sites. While your answer (based on personal experience) is good, for questions like this we really appreciate answers that point to sources. In this case, perhaps there are some newspaper or magazine articles from the 1940's on that use czar/tsar would be helpful in backing up your answer. Thanks! –  Jay Elston Feb 7 '13 at 1:28

I live in America, where the "Czar" spelling was commonly used into my adulthood - in the late 1980's! As noted already by Ray and Fumbefingers, OED cannot be accurate or apply accurately to American English - "the end of the (19th) century" was definitely not in "the past 50 years". The Polish in "Czar" may have contributed to the "Cz" usage in the US, where a large Polish-American population had existed since the 19th century. That it's been changing here during the few decades since the Soviet collapse sent a new population of Russian immigrants our way is hardly surprising.

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The original pronunciation of Caesar was with a hard c, AE in Latin was pronounced as a long i, thus the German form Kaiser. I believe wherever czar originated it was pronounced kuh-zar. The Russians do not have a "ks" or "kz" sound but their alphabet does have a "ts" sound, thus tsar.

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Ah! A man with a time machine! Excellent. I need you to run a few errands... –  Matt E. Эллен Apr 9 '14 at 14:09
This is wrong on many accounts. 1) Caesar in Russian (цезарь) starts with a /ts/, just as tsar (царь) does. 2) Originally, it was кесарь. Stress on the first syllable, mind you. 3) Kuh-zar is not a valid pronunciation of czar in any Slavic language. 4) Russian does have /ks/, including as the onset (ксантан, ксантиппа, Ксавер, ксерокс, Ксюша). 5) Кз is very rare, but possible as well. 6) Alphabets do not have sounds to begin with. They have letters. Which do not really correspond to sounds, or at all. 7) I am not sure what any of this has to do with the question at hand. –  RegDwigнt Apr 9 '14 at 16:14

protected by tchrist Jun 14 '14 at 18:36

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