Tuna tartare and phrases in aspic

The other day, editing a review of an Asian restaurant for a lifestyle magazine, I ran across a reference to "tuna tar tar." Hmm? Is this a specialty they serve in Pago Pago? Or among the Mau Mau rebels? Is there such a thing as mahi-mahi tar tar?

Finally it dawned on me that the writer meant "tuna tartare," a seafood equivalent of "steak tartare" – essentially raw ground beef dressed up for a party. (It may be that both dishes are popular because, being uncooked, they can be served chop-chop.)

The story goes that the Tartars were too busy making war to make a fire to cook dinner properly: They kept their meat underneath their saddles to mince it.

Well, if they didn't have time to cook their beef, they surely didn't have time to ride from the steppes of Central Asia all the way to the fishing grounds of Japan to catch their tuna.

On the other hand, Le Bernardin, in New York, my online reality check for "tuna tartare," is a very highly regarded restaurant where they presumably know whereof they speak.

Double-checking the spelling in my dictionary, I decided to follow the analogy of its beefy counterpart and keep that final "e." But "steak tartare" is a locution my dictionary calls "pseudo-French."

That may be, but a Google search for the phrase on French-language pages has just scored 60,000-plus hits. That suggests that pseudo-French has a lot of native speakers.

At least one of these pages suggests that "true" steak tartare is made with horseflesh, which arrived in butcher shops around Paris in the latter half of the 19th century. That would seem to put a dent in the Genghis Khan theory of chopped meat.

Other sources trace the odyssey of ground meat from Russia to Germany to New York, where steak tartare was evidently on menus a century or more before Le Bernardin appeared on the scene.

All this demonstrates the "legs" of a good bit of euphemism – "tartare" has caught on as a chichi way to say "raw" in a variety of cuisines around the world.

This episode has also reminded me of the fixative power of print – of dictionaries, in particular.

Words go into dictionaries in forms that may reflect who knows what ideas about Mongol hordes or Pacific fishermen or Parisian butchers. Once a word is officially "in," though, its evolution tends to slow down considerably.

To continue our culinary theme, you might say a dictionary can put a phrase into aspic. ("Put into Jell-O" is theoretically equivalent, but lacks the secondary meaning that "put into aspic" has.)

Sometimes spelling changes reflect incorrect ideas of where a word comes from. Our English word "cutlet" came into French from "côtelette," from "côte," meaning "rib." It has nothing to do with cutting. But people thought it did, and the spelling morphed. The word was accepted into dictionaries that way. It's likely to stay.

"Highfalutin" is another example. It's an adjective, generally tagged "informal," and it means "pretentious" or "pompous," or "affectedly genteel." It's generally described as coming from "high" plus "floating," or, more often, "fluting."

Just what "high-fluting" would mean is open to speculation, so I'll speculate that it's related to "tooting one's own horn" or maybe "having too many bells and whistles."

The final "ing" has long since become "in," in the manner of easygoin', slow-talkin' Americans everywhere – but oddly, the apostrophe customary in such constructions has disappeared. This faux folksiness has been frozen into the spelling of the word in about a dozen popular dictionaries I've just consulted.

Isn't this great – a dictionary standard way of spelling an informal term used to put down pretentiousness?

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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