Historical Info for Historical Fiction Readers discussion

Bits and Bobs > Slang in 1890's England.

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message 1: by Mary (new)

Mary (MaryBT) I hope I'm putting this in the correct forum ... I'm reading "Rebecca's Tale" by Sally Beauman, which is set in England between 1880-1951.

In the part of the book set in 1890-1900, one of the characters calls another "tartar." I looked it up in the dictionary and all I can come up with is the tartar sauce definition. Does anyone know what is meant by this term?

Thanks in advance.

message 2: by Tracey (new)

Tracey (Stewartry) I always took that in context as meaning someone who was unreasonably mean; I seem to have seen it in connection with unyielding nannies.

One of the online dictionaries gives the second or third definition as "an irritable, violent, intractable person"; it seems to be related to the name Tatar for nomadic Mongols (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatars) - Genghis certainly had his irritable, violent, intractable moments.

message 3: by Tracey (new)

Tracey (Stewartry) That works beautifully with the nannies.

message 4: by Sharon (new)

Sharon (fiona64) Mary wrote: "I hope I'm putting this in the correct forum ... I'm reading "Rebecca's Tale" by Sally Beauman, which is set in England between 1880-1951.

In the part of the book set in 1890-1900, one of the ch..."

A "tartar" as applied to a woman means that she is a harridan.

message 5: by Lisa (new)

Lisa By the way, I believe Nuryev was part Tartar. At least one of his old ballet teachers in an interview reminisced about meeting him, "this little Tartar boy." I know he grew up in (and family from) Siberia.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary (MaryBT) Thank you all very much. That fits with the woman's nickname as "The Termagant." I appreciate the speedy responses.

(I kept thinking along the lines of "tart" and that just wasn't fitting. lol.)

message 7: by Bryn (new)

Bryn Hammond (BrynHammond) | 29 comments Yes, as far as I know too, it came to mean a 'Tartar battleaxe' of a woman. Why's that, then? The steppe did have women who used a battleaxe.

There are worse insults, that date to Mongol days.

message 8: by Bryn (last edited Jan 29, 2012 04:24PM) (new)

Bryn Hammond (BrynHammond) | 29 comments Blood Bone and Muscle wrote: "Hmm, Mongol raids and invasions are generally regarded as one of the deadliest to human life, and are ranked third after World War II and the An Shi Rebellion. Although Russian forces defeated the ..."

I'm sorry, but: statistics, damned statistics, and lies. Stats, bad enough now, are far more difficult from back then. Figures were wild - everywhere - an enemy army was at least ten times bigger than the actuality, whether in Europe or Asia. And as for casualties... I've read about figures in Chinese accounts (Chinese, famous for historical records) and came away with a message not to trust the stats.

I've seen that Wiki article that lists An Lushan second and the Mongol conquests third. In both cases, the calculations are extremely problematic, and that's polite.

There's a quote I like: "I earnestly entreat my readers (if I ever have any) not to demand of me a strictly accurate account of what happened or an exact number of the slain" - Ammianus, on war between Romans and Goths. Quoted in a defence of barbarians by dear Terry Jones, Terry Jones' Barbarians

message 9: by Lisa (last edited Jan 30, 2012 05:51AM) (new)

Lisa Bryn, love this post! And that's a great reminder. What you say makes so much sense - I work with data in this modern time, and yes, problematic enough, not only to record accurately but interpret properly. And as for the ancient quote, well, there you are!

message 10: by Blood Bone and Muscle (last edited Jan 29, 2012 09:28PM) (new)

Blood Bone and Muscle | 30 comments Merci, I will get rid of it right away. Once again, we need someone who is expert in Mongol tribalism.

History is written by the victors and I posted that there hoping someone could correct me. :D

It was banally obvious those statistics were faulty. But to what point?

Where they simply a wrong turn in the closest thing or a sheer lie?

Blood Bone and Muscle | 30 comments Do you know the most probable statistics?

message 12: by Bryn (last edited Jan 30, 2012 02:52AM) (new)

Bryn Hammond (BrynHammond) | 29 comments It's impossible to know, is the short answer.

For instance, casualty figures given at the time or shortly after by Persian writers - the only figures we have - are wildly inflated. In Nishapur, 1.7 million are reported killed. We don't know the population of Nishapur, but a sensible estimate is forty thousand. In the other cities, 'a million and a half' are killed where a million can't have lived: where 200,000 is the most we can allot.

It was chaos, obviously, and the exaggerations are a mark of the chaos, a figure of speech, or a scream of anguish. Those figures still get quoted in books, though.

Glad you liked, Lisa.

message 13: by Rita (new)

Rita | 1 comments Back to the meaning of word tartar, even though you probably got all you needed I wanted to add my 2 cents. When I thought of tartar I did not think of tart but of "tartare" as in steak tartare. I checked the etymology of the word and this is what I came up with.

tartar "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.

It complimented my original idea of the word meaning crude, gross and raw.


Tartar mid-14c. (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 to be ultimately 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" (1660s); Byron's tartarly (1821) is a nonce-word. To catch a Tartar "get hold of what cannot be controlled" is recorded from 1660s.

message 14: by Debra (new)

Debra Brown (DebraBrown) | 957 comments Mod
Very interesting!

message 15: by D.E. (last edited Mar 31, 2012 03:14AM) (new)

D.E. Meredith | 12 comments If you ever want a good book on C19th slang, do buy a copy of Lee Jackson's "Dictionary of Victorian England" - it's wonderful and he has a new book out on kindle I believe along similar lines but I don't have a kindle!

message 16: by Debra (new)

Debra Brown (DebraBrown) | 957 comments Mod
Thanks for the title, Denise. He has a page here with much information- see the left side of the page. His entire website is fascinating.


message 17: by D.E. (new)

D.E. Meredith | 12 comments Yes it is, Debra. Lee is great - I follow him on twitter. This is also a great link for all of us C19th Victorianistas: http://www.victorianweb.org

message 18: by Lisa (new)

Lisa great! thanks! can't wait to check it out. Love all the great links I've found through this group :-)

message 19: by V.r. (last edited Apr 02, 2012 06:23AM) (new)

V.r. Christensen (VRChristensen) | 46 comments I have Lee Jackson's book. I haven't read it, though. I need to put that on a priority list. His website *IS* fascinating, Debra. I've used it a lot, as he has Cassells Household Guide there and it's searchable by subject. There was also lately reprinted a book...."The Slang Dictionary" which was originally printed in the 1850's. The best thing I've found for writers, though, who want to test if their phraseology is current with the times is the Google Ngram Viewer. http://books.google.com/ngrams/

You pop a phrase in, select your desired time period, and it pulls up all the books in which that phrase can be found. The only danger there is that meanings sometimes change. Gay, for instance, doesn't mean what it used to. And for me, I like to use the phrase 'want he/she/you should' which *was* correct for the time, but is now identified among immigrants who have failed to learn the language properly, so it no longer works. Anyway, that's sort of backwards dictionary usage, but it's a great source.

message 20: by D.E. (new)

D.E. Meredith | 12 comments Great link - very useful for me. Many thanks!

message 21: by V.r. (new)

V.r. Christensen (VRChristensen) | 46 comments Your welcome. I use it a lot. I think it's fabulous!

message 22: by D.E. (new)

D.E. Meredith | 12 comments It's very interesting - just ran a few phrases through. Thanks!

message 23: by Debra (new)

Debra Brown (DebraBrown) | 957 comments Mod
Yes that will be great for me too. Thank you

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

The Phrase Finder website is invaluable to historical fiction writers. I have used it for my two Victorian historical fictions.

message 25: by V.r. (new)

V.r. Christensen (VRChristensen) | 46 comments Here's the link for that. Haven't used it, but it looks very useful.


message 26: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Diener (michellediener) | 4 comments I also like to use http://www.etymonline.com/ just to give me a quick idea of when a word first came into use.

message 27: by C.P. (last edited Sep 23, 2012 06:00PM) (new)

C.P. Lesley (cplesley) Rita wrote: "Back to the meaning of word tartar, even though you probably got all you needed I wanted to add my 2 cents. When I thought of tartar I did not think of tart but of "tartare" as in steak tartare. I ..."

Sorry to come in on this so late. Rita is substantially correct. But Tartar is a European term for Turks and Mongols, from Tartarus, as suggested (hence steak tartare—raw steak, which steppe nomads supposedly ate). That then gave rise to tartar, as in an authoritarian person, usually a woman.

But the people themselves are TATARS, not Tartars, and the origins of that term are far from clear. It seems once to have referred to a tribe that killed Genghis Khan's father and was one of his early conquests. It was also applied to the shock troops that served as the vanguard of the Mongol army, possibly because those troops included the few surviving Tatars.

After the Mongol conquest of Russia, the Russians referred to all Mongols as Tatars, maybe because they first encountered the shock troops. And much, much later (19th or 20th century), it became the name that Russia's Muslim population applied to itself. Hence the Republic of Tatarstan.

So Tatars are a Turkic people. Tartar is a European corruption of that name which reflects various perceptions and prejudices about how that Turkic people lived.

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Historical Info for Historical Fiction Readers

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