Words-worth: Tsar

Sir Alan Sugar is the Government's new 'enterprise tsar'. But what does that mean, exactly?

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Just before his elevation to the peerage, the businessman formerly known as Sir Alan Sugar was made the Government's Enterprise Champion, a peculiar title in itself, but not grand enough for the newspapers, which dubbed him 'enterprise tsar'.

A 'tsar' is an absolute ruler. It was the formal title of the monarch of Russia, first adopted by Ivan III in the 15th century. The word is a cut-down version of an earlier noun, tsisari, a Slavonic version of 'Caesar'. Tsar (or czar) came to us from the US, where from the 19th century it referred to all manner of minor tyrants and bullies. Useful because it fits easily in a newspaper headline, it was not used approvingly until the mid-20th century, when it began to be applied to US government appointees. The earliest British use in that sense came in a 2001 Observer article about 'equal pay "tsars"' charged with rooting out sex discrimination at work. Lord Sugar joins a galaxy of 'tsars', which is odd: the convention for absolute rulers is that there is only one at a time.

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