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The origins of the word tart are a mystery. English borrowed it in the fourteenth century from Old French tarte, but no one knows for certain where tarte came from. Some have suggested that it is an alteration (influenced by medieval Latin tartarum, ‘Tatar’) of Old French torte, ancestor of modern French tourte, a round savoury or sweet pie or tart. This in turn came from Latin torta, ‘round bread’, which literally meant ‘twisted’ (it was a derivative of the verb torquēre, ‘twist’). (German torte, ‘rich cake or tart’, as in Sachertorte and Linzertorte, probably comes from the same Latin source, as ultimately do Italian tortellini and American Spanish tortilla.) However, not all etymologists accept this derivation.

What is certain, though, is that when English acquired the word in the fourteenth century, it denoted an open pastry case that could contain meat or fish as well as fruit or vegetables (the medieval cookery book Forme of Cury gives a recipe for tarts of flesh, which contain minced pork and rabbit). Only gradually over the centuries did the meat disappear (and also to a large extent the vegetables, although one may still encounter the occasional spinach tart). In modern English, a decided Atlantic rift in usage has developed. In America, the word tart tends to indicate a small individual open pastry case with a sweet, usually fruit filling. In Britain, this usage survives in the particular context of jam tarts, but on the whole tart refers to a larger version of this, with a jam, fruit, or custard filling, that is cut into slices for serving, or to a similar fruit-filled pastry case with a crust—in other words, a fruit pie.

The word seems first to have been applied colloquially to women in the mid-nineteenth century, as a term of endearment rather than abuse (the first to record it was John Hotten, in his Dictionary of Modern Slang (1864): ‘Tart, a term of approval applied by the London lower orders to a young woman for whom some affection is felt. The expression is not generally employed by the young men, unless the female is in “her best”’). Not until the 1880s do we find instances of its being applied to prostitutes. The original inspiration was presumably that tarts were thought of as sweet and toothsome.

The diminutive tartlet, also a borrowing from French, is of equal antiquity with tart: to quote the Forme of Cury again, it describes how to make ‘tartlettes’ with minced pork, eggs, currants, and saffron.

The adjective tart, ‘sharp-tasting’, incidentally, is a completely different word, which goes back to Old English teart, ‘acerbic’.

Subjects: Cookery, Food, and Drink.

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