Who isn’t a little annoyed by the recent “czars” epidemic? Writing in Slate, Ben Zimmer (Visual Thesaurus) reaches back into the expression’s history.

Already Tom Daschle has been tapped for “health czar” and Carol Browner for “climate czar.” Adolfo Carrión is expected to be the “urban affairs czar.” There’s also been talk of a “technology czar” and a “copyright czar.” Plans for a “car czar” recently fell apart on Capitol Hill, but Obama and the incoming Congress will try, try again in the new year. This efflorescence of czars-those interagency point people charged with cutting through red tape to coordinate policy-has people wondering: Why do we use a term from imperial Russia to describe bureaucratic troubleshooters?

The roots of this contemporary usage are tied to the expansion of the institutional presidency. Zimmer continues:

The newly benign term evolved again during World War II, when Roosevelt expanded the government rapidly and appointed a host of brand-new federal overseers. The Washington Post reported in 1942 on the sudden rush of “executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy,” and a cartoon from that year shows “czar of prices” Leon Henderson, “czar of production” Donald Nelson, and “czar of ships” Emory S. Land all cramming onto one throne.

In the postwar era, the rise of the “czar” has accompanied the expanding role of the executive office in promoting policy initiatives; the term tends to be used when presidents create special new posts for the individuals charged with pushing those initiatives through. Nixon succumbed to czarmania, appointing the first “drug czar,” Jerome Jaffe, in 1971 (long before William Bennett took the mantle in 1988). But it was the title of “energy czar” that got the most attention during those days of OPEC embargoes and gas rationing. Though John A. Love first held the title in 1973, his more powerful successor William E. Simon really got the “czar” ball rolling.