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October 26, 2009


Stephen Menn

For the central Asian people, one of various groups forged together by Genghis Khan, my recollection is that the correct word is "Tatar," and that the Westerners (using it as a name for all the peoples led by Genghis Khan) corrupted it to "Tartar" in order to imply that they were an outbreak from Tartarus that had erupted onto the earth. That could be wrong, but I think anyway that was the story I picked up when I was studying such things 20+ years ago.

Justin E. H. Smith

I seem to remember hearing the same account, now that you mention it. So it looks like 'Tartar' as an ethnonym is an early modern conflation of the Turkic 'Tatar' with the Greek 'Tartaros', while 'tartar' as a chemical term is a transformation of the Arabic word for 'sediment' to the point where it matches the Greek too. In both cases foreign words that sound like a familiar Greek word, and that have the same connotations as the Greek word in the European imagination, are made to match the Greek word exactly. I know there's a linguistic term for this sort of incorporation through alteration, but I don't recall what it is.

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