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?
Origin of 'czar' and 'tsar'
Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) lists czar as the primary spelling in U.S. English, and tsar as a variant spelling. Webster's Word Histories (1989), in a fairly detailed discussion of the two spellings, attributes the spelling czar to a sixteenth-century Austrian baron:
John Ayto, Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins (1990) concerns itself exclusively with the derivation of the spelling tsar:
British and U.S. preferences for 'tsar' versus 'czar'
The question of whether tsar or czar should be viewed as the primary spelling in English is a matter of contention, as various answers and comments here indicate. Robert Hendrickson, The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (1997) offers this remark at the end of its entry for czar; tsar; tsarina; etc.:
That the tendency of reference works to prefer tsar in UK English and czar in U.S. English is clear from the way the British and American versions of the OED handle the spelling. From Concise Oxford English Dictionary, revised tenth edition (2001)):
From Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus (2003):
Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, second edition (2003) comes out squarely in favor of the spelling czar:
And so does The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (2002):
The spelling czar no doubt also benefits in the United States from being identified as a probable typo under Microsoft Word's default U.S. spelling preferences.
And yet something very odd occurs when you run Google Books searches for tsar (red line) versus czar (blue line). The British English chart for the years 1809–2008 is not surprising, given the U.K. preference for tsar:
But the corresponding chart for American English is astonishing:
Despite being identified as the primary spelling by the Merriam-Webster, Oxford American, American Heritage, and Random House English dictionaries, tsar appears to have held its own against czar for the past century in the Google Books database of U.S. publications.
A usage note under the entry for czar in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition (2000) offers perhaps the best explanation of this seeming anomaly:
To the extent that tsar continues to be at least as common as czar in U.S. books, AHDEL suggests, this may reflect the strong preference of Slavic studies authors for tsar. Presumably, if the Google Books database were to add newspapers and (more) magazines to its scanned holdings, the influence of Slavic studies scholars' preferences on the reported overall popularity of tsar versus czar in the United States would be much diminished.
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.
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
'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:
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)
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.
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]
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.
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.
Here’s what the OED says:
protected by tchrist Jun 14 '14 at 18:36
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