catch a tartar


a member of any of the various tribes, chiefly Mongolian and Turkish, who, originally under the leadership of Genghis Khan, overran Asia and much of eastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
a member of the descendants of this people variously intermingled with other peoples and tribes, now inhabiting parts of the European and W and central Asian Russian Federation.
Tatar ( defs 1–3 ).
(often lowercase) a savage, intractable person.
(often lowercase) an ill-tempered person.
of or pertaining to a Tartar or Tartars; Tartarian.
Tatar ( def 5 ).
catch a Tartar, to deal with someone or something that proves unexpectedly troublesome or powerful. Also, catch a tartar.
Also, Tatar (for defs 1, 2, 4, 5, 8).

1350–1400; Middle English < Medieval Latin Tartarus, perhaps variant of *Tātārus < Persian Tātār, by association with Tartarus; replacing Middle English Tartre < Middle French < Medieval Latin, as above

Tartarly, adverb Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
tartar1 (ˈtɑːtə)
1.  dentistry a hard crusty deposit on the teeth, consisting of food, cellular debris, and mineral salts
2.  Also called: argol a brownish-red substance consisting mainly of potassium hydrogen tartrate, present in grape juice and deposited during the fermentation of wine
[C14: from Medieval Latin tartarum, from Medieval Greek tartaron]

tartar2 (ˈtɑːtə)
(sometimes capital) a fearsome or formidable person
[C16: special use of Tartar]

Tartar (ˈtɑːtə)
n, —adj
a variant spelling of Tatar

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009
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Word Origin & History

"bitartrate of potash" (a deposit left during fermentation), late 14c., from O.Fr. tartre, from M.L. tartarum, from late Gk. tartaron "tartar encrusting the sides of casks," perhaps of Semitic origin. The meaning "encrustation on teeth" (calcium phosphate) is first recorded 1806.

c.1369 (implied in Tartary, "the land of the Tartars"), from M.L. Tartarus, from Pers. Tatar, first used 13c. in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan (1202-1227), said ult. to be from Tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. Form in European languages probably influenced by L. Tartarus "hell" [e.g.
letter of St. Louis of France, 1270: "In the present danger of the Tartars either we shall push them back into the Tartarus whence they are come, or they will bring us all into heaven"]. The historical word for what now are called in ethnological works Tatars. A Turkic people, their native region was east of the Caspian Sea. Ghengis' horde was a mix of Tatars. Mongols, Turks, etc. Used figuratively for "savage, rough, irascible person" (1663); Byron's tartarly (1821) is a nonce-word. To catch a Tartar "get hold of what cannot be controlled" is recorded from 1663; original sense not preserved, but probably from some military story similar to the old battlefield joke:
Irish soldier (shouting from within the brush): I've captured one of the enemy.
Captain: Excellent! Bring him here.
Soldier: He won't come.
Captain: Well, then, you come here.
Soldier: I would, but he won't let me.
Tartar sauce is first recorded 1855, from Fr. sauce tartare.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Medical Dictionary

tartar tar·tar (tär'tər)
A hard, yellowish deposit on the teeth, consisting of organic secretions and food particles deposited in various salts, such as calcium carbonate. Also called dental calculus.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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American Heritage
Science Dictionary
tartar   (tär'tər)  Pronunciation Key 
  1. A hard yellowish deposit on the teeth, consisting of organic secretions and food particles deposited in various salts, such as calcium carbonate.

  2. A reddish acid compound consisting of a tartrate of potassium, found in the juice of grapes and deposited on the sides of wine casks.

The American Heritage® Science Dictionary
Copyright © 2002. Published by Houghton Mifflin. All rights reserved.
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American Heritage
Idioms & Phrases

catch a Tartar

Seek out something or someone that turns out to be unexpectedly unpleasant or formidable, as in Now that she finally agreed to meet with you, you just might find that you've caught a Tartar. In this term, Tartar signifies a difficult or sometimes violent individual, referring to Turkic and Mongolian invaders of Asia in the Middle Ages. [Mid-1600s]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer.
Copyright © 1997. Published by Houghton Mifflin.
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