To Catch a Tartar: Unveiling the Meaning and Origins of the Phrase


Have you ever heard the phrase “to catch a tartar” and wondered what it means? This intriguing expression has been used for centuries, but its origins and true meaning may not be immediately apparent. In this article, we will delve into the history and significance of the phrase “to catch a tartar,” exploring its etymology, usage, and cultural context. By the end, you will have a comprehensive understanding of this fascinating idiom.

The Etymology of “To Catch a Tartar”

The phrase “to catch a tartar” has its roots in the 17th century and is derived from the word “tartar,” which refers to a member of the Tartar people, a Central Asian ethnic group. The Tartars were known for their fierce and warlike nature, and the phrase “to catch a tartar” originally described the difficulty of capturing or defeating a Tartar warrior in battle.

Over time, the meaning of the phrase has evolved, and it is now used metaphorically to describe a situation where someone encounters an unexpectedly formidable opponent or faces a challenging task that proves more difficult than anticipated.

Usage and Examples

The phrase “to catch a tartar” is primarily used in English-speaking countries, and while it may not be as commonly used today, it still appears in literature, historical texts, and occasionally in everyday conversation. Let’s explore some examples to illustrate its usage:

  • John thought he could easily defeat his opponent in the chess tournament, but he ended up catching a tartar when he faced the reigning champion.
  • The detective underestimated the criminal’s intelligence and soon realized he had caught a tartar.
  • When Sarah took on the challenging project at work, she didn’t expect it to be so complex. She had definitely caught a tartar.

These examples demonstrate how the phrase “to catch a tartar” is used to describe situations where individuals face unexpected difficulties or formidable opponents.

The Cultural Context of “To Catch a Tartar”

The phrase “to catch a tartar” not only carries its literal meaning but also reflects the historical and cultural context in which it originated. During the 17th century, the Tartars were renowned for their military prowess and were feared by many. The phrase captures the idea that encountering a Tartar warrior in battle was a formidable challenge that required great skill and effort to overcome.

Furthermore, the phrase also highlights the cultural biases and stereotypes prevalent during that time. The Tartars were often portrayed as savage and uncivilized, perpetuating a negative image of their people. This portrayal influenced the perception of the phrase and contributed to its usage as a metaphor for a difficult or challenging situation.


1. Is “to catch a tartar” still commonly used today?

While the phrase may not be as commonly used today as it was in the past, it still appears in literature and historical texts. It may also be used in certain contexts or by individuals who appreciate its historical significance.

2. Can “to catch a tartar” be used in a positive context?

Generally, the phrase is used to describe a challenging or difficult situation. However, it is possible to use it in a positive context if the difficulty or challenge is seen as an opportunity for growth or learning.

3. Are there any similar phrases or idioms?

Yes, there are several similar phrases and idioms that convey a similar meaning. Some examples include “biting off more than you can chew,” “taking on a Herculean task,” or “meeting one’s match.”

4. Are there any cultural sensitivities associated with the phrase?

Given its historical context and portrayal of the Tartar people, it is important to be mindful of potential cultural sensitivities when using the phrase. While it may be used innocently in certain contexts, it is always advisable to consider the potential impact of the words we use.

5. Can “to catch a tartar” be used in professional settings?

While the phrase may not be commonly used in professional settings, it can be used to describe challenging situations or formidable opponents in a metaphorical sense. However, it is important to gauge the appropriateness of its usage based on the context and the individuals involved.


The phrase “to catch a tartar” has a rich history and cultural significance. Originating from the fierce Tartar warriors of Central Asia, the phrase has evolved to describe encountering a formidable opponent or facing a challenging task. While not as commonly used today, it still appears in literature and historical texts, reminding us of its historical context and the biases prevalent during that time. By understanding the origins and meaning of “to catch a tartar,” we gain insight into the linguistic and cultural tapestry of the English language.


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