A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What do steak tartare, tartar sauce, and dental tartar have in common?

Dear Straight Dope:

Normally I don't have problems with this sort of thing, but it recently started driving me somewhat nuts. I am referring, of course, to the word 'tartar'. I have seen it used in three ways: steak tartare; tartar sauce; and of course, the dental variety of tartar, to which there are dedicated many preventative toothpastes. What's the deal? Whence comes this word, and why is it used to describe three relatively unrelated things? Also, if you could be so kind, perhaps you might tell me just what the hell 'glycerol ester of wood rosin' (pardon any misspellings) is and why I would want to drink it in a beverage? Maybe if I knew these things, I could make the world a better place. Thanks in advance for your time.

Ah, nothing like one of the Teeming Millions hungering for knowledge ... ahem. Okay, let's talk tartar. Or tartare. Or both. Steak tartare, as it is known today in its French appellation, was not always the, uh, gourmet meal of raw minced beefsteak mixed with egg and seasoning that it is now. As we can see in "Panetti's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things," this dish has its origin as a culinary practice popular in medieval times among warring Mongolian and Turkic tribes known as Tartars. These violent fellows derived their name from the infernal abyss of Greek mythology, Tartarus. Their meal was low-quality, tough meat from Asian cattle grazing on the Russian steppe, shredded to make it more palatable and digestible. It was introduced into Germany sometime around the dawn of the 14th century, where it was prepared either raw or cooked. In fact, you get bonus points of you can guess what folks in the seaport town of Hamburg started calling it.

Tartar sauce, or as the French refer to it, sauce tartare, consists of mayonnaise, mustard, chives, chopped gherkins, and tarragon, according to C. Owen's "Choice Cooking," circa 1889. In French, it is loosely translated as 'rough,' as the Tartars were considered rough, violent, and savage. It is commonly served with fish. Yum yum.

As for the dental usage of tartar, it serves as a generic name for salts of tartaric acids. The tartar you see mentioned on your Ultrabright tube is referring to the deposits of calcium phosphate from your very own saliva, which tends to harden or concrete on your teeth. So sayeth the OED. Of course, you're also aware that bitartrate of potash, also known as potassium tartarate, occurs during the fermentation of grape juice. It adheres to the side of casks in the form of a crust known as argol, which when purified forms the white crystals known as cream of tartar. Win a few bar bets with that one, Nate.

But getting back to your orginal question, what do all these have in common? Not much. But who says they have to be related to one another? Why can 'boot' be something you put on your foot, what you do to a football, and what you do to start up your computer? Or why can 'cheese' be something you put on your burger, something said to elicit a smile for a picture, a description of a really bad movie, or an old way to say 'Stop it!'? To steal from the Bard, "Words, words, words." As for the gylcerol ester of wood rosin, I would answer that but Little Ed needs me to, um, move some stuff over to the new website. And who am I to tell you what to put in your mouth?

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