February 20th, 2009

The US President sometimes feels inspired to appoint delegates for coordinating interagency policy on something or other. What to call them? Agreed that the epithet “czar” is triply stupid: the Czar of all the Russias was a ruler, the Monocrat, not a deputy; his power was despotic not constitutional; and the régime failed utterly. You do need something else; and since the mandates of White House “czars” are bully pulpits not executive agencies, it has to be catchy for the press.

Never let it be said the RBC only ever snarks without offering constructive suggestions. So let’s try to be helpful. We need to look at the long and rich history of titles for offices of delegated authority.

Commissar: a bit too activist, even for social democrats.

Anglo-French feudalism gives us bailiff, sheriff, governor, and lieutenant, but they already occupy niches in US practice. But constable, seneschal, chamberlain, chancellor, warden, and jurat are free. Constable started out as a high rank. The Constable of France was the senior general of the French King. The British cabinet may include a Paymaster General and a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: obsolete sinecures into which real jobs can be slotted.

The Ottoman empire gives us pasha, aga, bey, cadi, dey, and vizier (originally Persian). Atabeg, another Persian title, is of Turkic origin.

Republican Rome offers ædile, censor, legate, prætor, prefect, tribune, and the late Roman Empire vicar – originally quite secular.

Mughal and princely India: Dewan, Jam, Mehtar, Nawab, Nizam, Pradhan, Raja/Rani, Thakur, and Wali. The Akhund or Akond of Swat, remembered mainly through Edward Lear’s poem, was a 19th-century Pashtun Muslim saint, not an official or ruler, so a “car akond” is cheating.

I think I would stick with commissioner for cars and drugs. Single commissioners as in baseball came before collective ones; the word doesn’t only mean “member of a commission.” But for banking we do need an Atabeg. He (the kind of person we’re looking for will probably be male) should work out of a complex of silk tents in Wyoming, which shivering suppliants must reach on foot. The bankers and, why not, derivatives traders should plead for mercy under the horsetail banners streaming in the steppe wind, close to the white pyramid of bleached skulls.


The Banking Atabeg’s deputy will be named Conan.

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