| Thu Dec. 11, 2008 12:56 PM EST

CZARS....Hilzoy is pleased by one of Barack Obama's recent decisions:

I was absolutely thrilled by one fact in this post: the claim that Obama and his team do not plan to use the word 'czar'.

Thank heavens. We've had drug czars, energy czars; we may yet get a car czar. I'm tired of czars. And why czars, anyways?

Hmmm. Where did this whole czar business come from, anyway? My first recollection of it is Richard Nixon appointing an "energy czar" — in response to oil production peaking in the United States, by the way, not the Arab oil embargo — but a quick glance through Nexis shows several earlier uses. The first one I found was in 1969, when New York City controller Abraham Beame apparently decided the city needed to appoint a "construction czar" to get schools built more quickly. If Nexis went back further, I'd probably find earlier examples.

The usage is pretty obvious — a czar is a ruthless, absolute monarch who can shred the bureaucracy and get things done — but when did it first pop into use to describe a political appointee of some kind? Anyone have examples from earlier than 1969?