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shameless pleading

Tartar

Well, your dog has minty-fresh breath, but you need 72 stitches.

Dear Word Detective: My family got to talking about the word “tartar” over breakfast, something I’ve been surrounded by all my life — in steak, in sauce, as a baking ingredient, on my teeth — but I can’t find out what the link is. As far as I can work out, there’s two strands. One is from the Tartar tribes of the north, who ate the steak. My theory is that “tartar” entered the French language meaning “coarse,” and so the coarse sauce “tartar” got its name. But is there any connection between my fish sauce and the tartar on my teeth? — Hannah.

Your teeth? What about your dog’s teeth? There’s a low-rent commercial on the tee-vee these days for a concoction that promises to clean tartar off your dog’s teeth (thereby supposedly saving you billions in pet periodontist bills). It comes in a spray can, and apparently you simply catch Fido in an unguarded moment, pry his tartar-infested jaws open with one hand (good luck with that), and spritz this stuff into his maw. The commercial shows this being done to a small dog, which visibly recoils in shock. I imagine that if your dog is a bit larger, it might be wise to have 911 on your speed dial before beginning. And I think it’s significant that they don’t try this nonsense on a cat. Take it from me, a Cuisinart can’t hold a candle to an angry cat.

Your sense that there are two “strands” of “tartar” is right on the money. The “tartar” on your teeth and the “tartar” sauce on your fried clams are two different words.

The “tooth” variety of “tartar” is actually a deposit left by calcium phosphate from your saliva, which hardens and, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) delicately puts it, “concretes” upon your teeth, forming plaque. This dental “tartar,” however, is called “tartar” purely by analogy to the “real” tartar, which is potassium bitartrate, a salt of tartaric acid found in the juice of grapes, which forms a crust on the walls of wine casks. This “tartar” is also known as “argol” and, when purified, is used in cooking and known as “cream of tartar.” Wine-cask¬† “tartar” first appeared in English around 1384 in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, derived from the French “tartre,” which came in turn from the medieval Latin “tartarum,” and was probably ultimately of Arabic origin.¬† By the early 17th century, “tartar” was applied by analogy to any crust formed by the contact of a liquid and a surface, but it wasn’t until 1806 that “tartar” was used to mean the hard deposit on teeth.

I suppose the Tartars, the Mongolian and Turkish groups that invaded Europe in the early 13th century under Genghis Khan, probably drank a fair amount of wine, but there’s no connection between “tartar” in the “gunk in a wine cask” sense and Tartar as the name of a particular ethnic group in Central Asia. The name the Tartars called themselves was probably “Tatar,” but in Western Europe the name “Tartar” stuck, most likely because the Latin word for Hell was, by coincidence, “Tartarus.” Given the understandably dim view that Western Europe took of the Tartars, it’s not surprising that “tartar” also took on a variety of transferred senses, none of them complimentary. Beginning in the 17th century, “tartar” could mean a thief or beggar (“Here is a Bohemian tartar bully,” Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602), a generally unpleasant person (“Tartar, a covetous, griping person,” 1828) or an irritable and violent character (“When provoked he proved a tartar,” 1891). “Tartar” was also used to mean a person skilled to the point of being unbeatable, and the phrase “to catch a tartar,” meaning “to tackle one who unexpectedly proves to be too formidable” (OED) has long been a English idiom roughly equivalent to “catch a tiger by the tail.”

This reputation for coarseness and ferocity underlies both “steak tartare” (raw chopped beef served with onion and a raw egg) and “tartar sauce” (mayonnaise mixed with chopped pickles, onions, etc., and served with fish). Various stories purport to explain steak tartare as the descendant of the diet of the Tartars, who were supposedly too busy pillaging to cook their meat. But the simpler explanation is that the French, who named the dish, were probably just indulging in a little hyperbole to give what is, after all, just raw hamburger an “edge.” The French also invented tartar sauce, and that name probably reflects both its coarse texture and the near-primitive simplicity of the recipe.

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