Wine tartar and Asian tartar

The One Big Happy in my comics feed today (from April 5th originally), with Ruthie putting together the tartar of dental hygiene (as held in check by toothpaste) and the tartar of tartar sauce, going on the resemblance between toothpaste and the sauce commonly accompanying fish:

Here, Ruthie adopts the widespread attitude that Sound/Spelling Rules: an element with the phonology /tártǝr/ or the spelling TARTAR is “the same word” as any other such element (or, at least, is very closely related to it). The opposed attitude — Sense Rules — is also well-known, as evidenced (for example) in some speakers’ hot denials that gay ‘foolish, stupid, unimpressive’ (NOAD2) has anything to do with gay ‘homosexual’.

In the case of tartar, there are two clearly different etymological sources, one having to do with the production of wine (the ultimate source, believe it or not, of the tartar of dental hygiene), the other with inhabitants of Central Asia (the ultimate source, believe it or not, of the tartar of tartar sauce). This is a case where, spectacularly, etymology is not destiny, the two sources of tartar having each split semantically a number of times, each developing into a collection of elements that have nothing much to do with one another beyond sound/spelling, indeed not much more than the descendants of wine tartar have to do with the descendants of Asian tartar; from the point of view of modern speakers, what we’ve got is either a big assortment of distinct lexical items (if you follow Sense Rules resolutely) or a single lexical item with a big heterogeneous assortment of uses (if you follow Sound/Spelling Rules resolutely) — or something in between.

On the etymology, a few highlights from OED2:

tartar n.1 [etymology unclear, but likely to be related to Arabic]

1. a. Chem. Bitartrate of potash (acid potassium tartrate), present in grape juice, deposited in a crude form in the process of fermentation, and adhering to the sides of wine-casks in the form of a hard crust, also called argal or argol n.1, which in the crude state varies from pale pink to dark red, but when purified forms white crystals, which are cream of tartar. [from ME (Chaucer) on]
Hence, ‘A generic name for salts of tartaric acid’ (Watts).

2. a. transf. Any calcareous or other incrustation deposited from a liquid upon bodies in contact with it. [first cite 1605]
b. spec. A deposit of calcium phosphate from the saliva, which tends to harden and concrete upon the teeth. (So French tartre; cf. German weinstein.) [first cite 1806]

Tartar | Tatar n.2 and adj.

[etymological note:] The original name (by which the people in question either called themselves or were designated by their neighbours) is generally held to have been, as in Persian, etc., Tātār , as to the language and meaning of which various conjectures have been put forth; but in Western Europe, they appear from the first as Tartari, Tartares, or Tartars, their name being apparently associated with Tartarus, hell.]

1. A. n.2. A native inhabitant of the region of central Asia extending eastward from the Caspian Sea, and formerly known as Independent and Chinese Tartary. First known in the West as applied to the mingled host of Mongols, Tartars, Turks, etc., which under the leadership of Jenghiz [or Genghis] Khan (1202–1227) overran and devastated much of Asia and Eastern Europe; hence vaguely applied to the descendants of these now dwelling in Asia or Europe; more strictly and ethnologically, to any member of the Tâtar or Turkic branch of the Ural-Altaic or Turanian family, embracing the Turks, Cossacks, and Kirghiz Tartars. (In all these uses, but esp. the last, now often written Tatar, Tâtar.) [first cite ME (Chaucer)

3. fig. a. A person supposed to resemble a Tartar in disposition; a rough and violent or irritable and intractable person. [first cite 1669 (Dryden)]

1. B. adj. 1. Of or pertaining to the people referred to in sense A. 1, or their country. Also noting animals, plants, etc., belonging to Tartary. [For example:]

tartar sauce …  [translating French sauce tartare] a sauce made of mayonnaise and chopped gherkins, capers, etc., usu. served with fish. [first cite 1855]

steak tartare … a dish consisting of raw minced beefsteak mixed with egg and seasonings. [first cite 1911]

Note (once again): these snapshots from history are fascinating, but there is no reason to expect modern speakers to appreciate which uses of words group together etymologically and which do not.

One Response to “Wine tartar and Asian tartar”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Lord Byron wrote:

    Who killed John Keats?
    ‘I,’ says the Quarterly,
    So savage and Tartarly;
    ‘Twas one of my feats.’

    I wonder if you’ve written on the even more tangled history of bulgar/bugger.

    A forgotten tangle is squeamish/squamous. Chaucer’s clerk (in the Miller’s tale) was “somdel squamous / of farting, and of speches daungerous”.

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