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?

  • 10
    'tsar' and 'czar' are pronounced identically in English /zar/.
    – Mitch
    Sep 27 '11 at 18:54
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    @Mitch: Also /tsar/, depending on where you're from (the OED lists both)
    – Matt
    May 30 '13 at 1:27
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    @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
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    @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
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    @SF why is that abuse? /k/ is the original value of Latin C, after all.
    – phoog
    Jul 8 '15 at 0:49

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.

  • 3
    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. Sep 27 '11 at 19:06
  • 1
    The Guardian newspaper style guide says tsar not czar. Avoid "the government's transport tsar" or other PR-generated nonsense
    – Hugo
    Sep 27 '11 at 20:32
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    @z7ss: drug czar is a highly idiomastic usage that's shot to prominence in the last couple of decades. But even though that particular one goes against the trend, the fact is that tsar has been twice as common as czar for at least half a century. Sep 27 '11 at 21:56
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    @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
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    @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. Sep 28 '11 at 3:54

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:

czar Czar, or tsar, is our English word for a pre-Soviet Russian emperor. Tsar is a straightforward borrowing from the Russian, but the form of czar is strange. It looks rather like a Polish word, and in fact there is a Polish czar, but it is pronounced like English char and means 'charm' or 'spell'. The Polish equivalent of Russian tsar is spelled car—Polish c is pronounced ts. We owe our peculiar spelling of czar to an Austrian diplomatist, Siegmund, Freiherr (Baron) von Herberstein (1486–1566). ... Herberstein wrote in Latin, but his spelling of Russian tsar was influenced by his native German. The c in Herberstein's czar may have come from Polish, but his z was surely added as a pronunciation indicator—z in German, like c in Polish, is pronounced ts. The English word czar first appeared in a 1555 translation of Herberstein's work [Rerum moscovitarum commentarii, or Commentaries on Muscovite Matters].

The entry for the term in John Ayto, Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins (1990) focuses exclusively on the derivation of the spelling tsar:

tsar Caesar was a Roman cognomen (English gets caesarian from it) and from the days of Augustus was used as part of the title of 'emperor.' The Germanic peoples took it over in this sense (it is the source of German kaiser) and passed it on to prehistoric Slavic as tsēsari. This has evolved into Serbo-Croat and Bulgarian tsar and Russian tsar'—source of English 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.:

Spelling of the word varies in both British and American dictionaries—neither form is accepted by all authorities in either country.

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)):

czar etc. n. variant spelling of TSAR etc.

From Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus (2003):

tsar var. of CZAR.

Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, second edition (2003) comes out squarely in favor of the spelling czar:

czar; tsar. The spelling czar is overwhelmingly predominant. Tsar, though closer to the Russian form, is archaic.

And so does The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (2002):

tsar Use czar.

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:

The word czar can also be spelled tsar. Czar is the most common form in American usage and the one nearly always employed in the extended senses "any tyrant" or informally "one in authority." But tsar is preferred by most scholars of Slavic studies as a more accurate transliteration of the Russian and is often found in scholarly writing with reference to one of the Russian emperors.

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.

  • Nice answer! Those ngram graphs look a little odd though – I wonder if the low frequency of the word affects their reliability. Wikipedia says the "cz" digraph for /ts/ or derived sounds was once common across Europe. It is supposedly the source of the ç character. I remember when I was in Hungary, some place names used the digraph "cz" instead of the usual "c" to represent /ts/. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Latin-script_digraphs#C
    – herisson
    Jul 7 '15 at 23:08
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    @sumelic: Hi. The actual Ngram graphs that these charts are based on are as follows: British English, 1809–2008; American English, 1809–2008. I started at 1809 for 200 years of coverage—and to avoid a spike around 1806. My charts used no rounding.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jul 7 '15 at 23:49

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]

  • I always thought czar or csar came about because of the ae in Caesar (often ligated). Nonnative speakers couldn't figure out how to pronounce it, so the ae was left out. The s in Caesar is pronounced as if it were z ... . Sep 26 '16 at 21:24

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.


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.

  • 1
    Ah! A man with a time machine! Excellent. I need you to run a few errands... Apr 9 '14 at 14:09
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    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

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