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."
    – Fattie
    Feb 9, 2016 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.
    – Fattie
    Feb 9, 2016 at 10:39
  • I wouldn't rule out autocorrect. Does she use voice-to-text?
    – bobstro
    Feb 9, 2016 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. Feb 9, 2016 at 16:34
  • Yes the definitions above are correct. If you are from the area round Dudley in the West Midlands, 'ta-ta' means a bit stupid - away with the faries - or even 'doolally-tap' Jan 27, 2017 at 14:25

2 Answers 2


"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. Feb 9, 2016 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).

  • The Tatars are a Turkic people living in Asia and Europe who were one of the five major tribal confederations (khanlig) in the Mongolian plateau in the 12th century
    – user214187
    Jan 8, 2017 at 13:06
  • In Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader, the character of Queen Elizabeth refers to the photographer Cecil Beaton as "a bit of a tartar," and then goes on to describe him telling her to stand here or stand there, which supports the bossy/domineering definition.
    – Jim McCoy
    Jan 6, 2019 at 12:22

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