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Recently, a woman I know who lives in England (OK, she's my fiancee, if you want to know), wrote to me and described someone she knows as "a bit of a tartar". Now in context it seemed like a friendly jibe, but it I wasn't familiar with this particular construction, as an American.

Yes, yes, I could ask her what she means, but I wanted to ask it here and contribute to the knowledge base!

I found one dictionary definition in which it said that as an adjective it meant "of, relating to, or characteristic of the Tatars". Which of course explains everything. Not.

Edited to Add: Since this was posted, my fiancée has become my wife, whoo hoo!

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Note for non-English speakers. This is often confused/muddled with "tart". ("tart" just means a woman who dresses or behaves in a way that is considered tasteless or provocative.) In general people often confuse "tart" and "tatar/tartar". So indeed you often hear "She's a bit of a tart" as well as "she's a bit of a tartar/tatar." – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 10:37
An interesting observation is "bit of a tartar" is usually, I think, only applied to females, not males. Although, seemingly, it could perfectly apply to males also. – Joe Blow Feb 9 at 10:39
I wouldn't rule out autocorrect. Does she use voice-to-text? – bobstro Feb 9 at 16:04
No, @bobstro, this was a quite deliberate bit of typing. Joe, I don't see how the term could be applied to a female. Tart, yes, Tartar, no. – Cyberherbalist Feb 9 at 16:34
up vote 13 down vote accepted

"Characteristic of the Tartars" is basically correct. The OED describes them as:

2. fig. Tartar-like; rough and violent, savage


3. fig.

a. A person supposed to resemble a Tartar in disposition; a rough and violent or irritable and intractable person.

Another possible meaning, based on personal experience, is for tartar to mean stupid or mentally ill, presumably a play on retard. This comes from my schooldays, was probably local, and I haven't heard it used that way in decades.

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Well, when I was going to a UK Grammar School in the late 60's, certain of the pupils were fond of referring to people who, in their opinion, "just didn't get it", as Philistines. I doubt that Tartar was a play on retard, actually. Now, my fiancee is an operating room nurse, and the bloke in question is a surgeon she works with, so your 3a there, wins the prize. – Cyberherbalist Feb 9 at 5:17

A Tartar in this context is someone who is domineering, bossy, overbearing. It's a Britishism and quite old.

Technically and traditionally a Tartar (or Tatar) was one of the Mongolian hordes who overran Asia under Genghis Khan (although this may not be demographically correct).

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