In a Word: Julius Caesar’s Ongoing Contributions to Language

The famed dictator of Rome secured his place not only in history but in language

Marble bust of Julius Caesar

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

The name Julius Caesar conjures a number of images in people’s minds. Some remember history lessons about the Roman general and dictator who died more than two millennia ago. Others recall seeing him on stage in a Shakespearean drama. Still others picture the statue standing watch outside a popular casino on the Las Vegas Strip.

But there’s even more to the name Julius Caesar than a singular man. His name is the starting point for a linguistic legacy that has spanned continents, and it still has relevance in Modern English. It all began when he decided he needed an heir.

Gaius Julius Caesar adopted his grand-nephew Octavius after Octavius’s father died. According to Roman naming conventions, Octavius took on his adoptive father’s name — the whole name. He became known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, often shortened to the anglicized Octavian today when talking about his early life.

As we all know, the Ides of March of 44 B.C. were not great for Julius Caesar, but they weren’t horrible for Octavian. In Julius’s will, he named Octavian as his heir, not only to his estate but to his power. So after the assassination — and some political and military maneuvering — Octavian assumed the role of emperor of the Roman Empire. After he defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra, the Roman Senate bestowed a new title upon him: Augustus, meaning “illustrious one.” Octavian became Augustus Caesar, and his reign ushered in the Pax Romana.

When it came to lineage, Augustus followed in Julius’s footsteps: He adopted a boy, his stepson Tiberius, and named him his heir, bestowing upon him the name Caesar. Thus a trend was established among Roman emperors of identifying the next in succession by bestowing the title Caesar upon him, a title which was kept after ascension to power.

English contains a lot of words that are derived from Latin, in large part because of the expansion of the Roman Empire and the language it took with it. Caesar is one of those words that found its place in the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire — in fact, it was one of the first Latin borrowings into the Germanic languages. Translated into different tongues, caesar became synonymous with emperor. We find it in Old English as cāsere, and it appears in Middle English as keiser. On the continent, it became the German and Austrian Kaiser, the title that would be used by the emperor of Germany through the end of World War I.

The word caesar also evolved through the Slavic languages and into Russian, where it became czar or tsar, a title first adopted in 1547 by Ivan IV, Emperor of Russia. A German ambassador to Russia —Siegmund, Baron von Herberstein — brought the Latinized transliteration czar back to Europe in 1549, likely influenced by German spellings. Though the etymological link to Caesar is more apparent in the spelling czar, tsar is a more straightforward borrowing from the Russian.

Nonetheless, American political discourse latched on to the spelling czar, and pundits used it to indicate someone with practically dictatorial powers. In the 1970s and ’80s, we had, for example, an energy czar (John Love) and a drug czar (William Bennett), and the title keeps returning for many an administrative post — though never officially.

But we’ve been using the word to make political statements for longer than you might think: Adversaries of Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States, were calling him “Czar Nicholas” in the early 1830s. And it popped up again in 1866, with opponents of President Andrew Johnson dubbing him “Czar of All the Americas.”

Julius Caesar’s linguistic legacy isn’t limited to emperors and dictators, though. His name is also the source of Caesar’s agaric (an edible mushroom also called royal agaric) and, supposedly, caesarean section, a phrase that has been around since at least the early 17th century. Legend has it that Julius Caesar was cut from his mother’s womb, but that isn’t likely — at the time of Caesar’s birth, such an operation would have been rare on a living woman and would most certainly have killed her, and history shows that Caesar’s mother lived to see him become one of Rome’s greatest generals. It’s more likely that caesarean (and perhaps Caesar’s name) is derived from the Latin caedere “to cut.”

One thing that is not part of Julius Caesar’s lexical ancestry: the Caesar salad. That was named for Caesar Cardini, the man who invented it in 1924.

Featured image: Shutterstock.

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Comments

  1. An extremely interesting feature on Julius Caesar. I just learned A LOT from you, Andy. You and the Post are my favorite continuing education teachers. I’m embarrassed to tell you that, over the years, I’ve gotten confused as to whether or not he was a real historical person, or a character of Shakespearean drama. My mom was an English teacher, and a huge Shakespeare fan.

    I couldn’t stand him for years because I couldn’t understand a lot of what he was saying. I was determined to become proficient (enough) so I read books that interpreted it, and found I kind of liked it, but prefer the more modern (18th century) speak of Ben Franklin I’ve used in more than a few of my comments here and there. When she was ill with Parkinson’s in 2013 it was tough to see her, so I entertained her reading Shakespeare and it was worth it to see her smile and put her hand on top of mine. After awhile I’d have to leave the room sooner so she wouldn’t see me lose it, often barely exiting in time near the end.

    The Latin, English, German, Austrian connections to the word Caesar are really interesting. I never gave the term caesarean section much thought, but now realize having a baby by that method successfully would have been virtually impossible not only in the 1600’s, but probably not that safe until the mid-1900s. What women have gone through to bring us into the world is much ado about a lot. It truly is.

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