The name "Tatar" likely originated amongst the nomadic Mongolic-speaking Tatar confederation in the north-eastern Gobi desert in the 5th century. The name "Tatar" was first recorded on the Orkhon inscriptions: Kul Tigin (732 CE) and Bilge Khagan (735 CW) monuments as 𐱃𐱃𐰺⁚𐰉𐰆𐰑𐰣⁚𐰆𐱃𐰕, Otuz Tatar Bodun, 'Thirty Tatar clan' and 𐱃𐱃𐰺⁚𐰸𐱃𐰕, Tokuz Tatar, 'Nine Tatar' referring to the Tatar confederation.
Tatar became a name for populations of the former Golden Horde in Europe, such as those of the former Kazan, Crimean, Astrakhan, Qasim, and Siberian Khanates. The form Tartar has its origins in either Latin or French, coming to Western European languages from Turkish and the Persian language (tātār, "mounted messenger"). From the beginning, the extra r was present in the Western forms, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary this was most likely due to an association with Tartarus.
The Persian word is first recorded in the 13th century in reference to the hordes of Genghis Khan and is of unknown origin, according to OED "said to be" ultimately from tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. The Arabic word for Tatars is تتار. Tatars themselves wrote their name as تاتار or طاطار. The Chinese term for Tatars was 韃靼; Dádá, especially after the end of the Yuan period (14th century), but also recorded as a term for Mongolian-speaking peoples of the northern steppes during the Tang period (8th century). The name Tatars was used as an alternative term for the Shiwei, a nomadic confederation to which these Tatar people belonged.
Russians and Europeans used the name Tatar to denote Mongols as well as Turkic peoples under Mongol rule (especially in the Golden Horde). Later, it applied to any Turkic or Mongolic-speaking people encountered by Russians. Eventually, however, the name became associated with the Turkic Muslims of Ukraine and Russia, namely the descendants of Muslim Volga Bulgars, Kipchaks, Cumans, and Turkicized Mongols or Turko-Mongols (Nogais), as well as other Turkic-speaking peoples (Siberian Tatars, Qasim Tatars, and Mishar Tatars) in the territory of the former Russian Empire (and as such generally includes all Northwestern Turkic-speaking peoples).
Nowadays Tatar is usually used to refer to the people, but Tartar is still almost always used for derived terms such as tartar sauce, steak tartare, and the Tartar missile.
All Turkic peoples living within the Russian Empire were named Tatar (as a Russian exonym). Some of these populations still use Tatar as a self-designation, others do not.
- Kipchak groups
- Kipchak–Bulgar branch, or "Tatar" in the narrow sense
- Kipchak–Cuman branch
- Kipchak–Nogai branch:
- Nogais: Nogai Tatars, includes the Karagash subgroup of Nogais—Kundrov Tatars
- Siberian branch:
- Oghuz branch
The name Tatar is also an endonym to a number of peoples of Siberia and Russian Far East, namely the Khakas people.