Sunday, January 1, 2012

Tinkering

Quoted directly from Charles Hodgson's blog - (http://podictionary.com/?p=856)

“In 1935 poet Louis MacNeice wrote a little poem called Sunday Morning.

Down the road someone is practising scales,
The notes like little fishes vanish with a wink of tails,
Man's heart expands to tinker with his car
For this is Sunday morning, Fate's great bazaar;
Regard these means as ends, concentrate on this Now,

And you may grow to music or drive beyond Hindhead anyhow,
Take corners on two wheels until you go so fast
That you can clutch a fringe or two of the windy past,
That you can abstract this day and make it to the week of time
A small eternity, a sonnet self-contained in rhyme.

But listen, up the road, something gulps, the church spire
Open its eight bells out, skulls' mouths which will not tire
To tell how there is no music or movement which secures
Escape from the weekday time. Which deadens and endures.

I don’t like to tinker with cars, but I do like to tinker with plenty of other things. I think it’s pretty common and as such the word tinker has a vaguely positive tone to it. MacNeice’s line that “man’s heart expands” certainly has a positive tone.

But this good feeling surrounding the word tinker is a complete turnaround for the word. There was a time when it represented everything low and evil. Of course to tinker with something makes tinker a verb and the verb first appeared back about 50 years after Shakespeare’s death with the meaning I’ve been using here. It was during his lifetime that the earlier noun first showed up as a verb, but more specifically then tinkering was working as a tinker, someone who fixed pots and pans. The noun appears in the written record considerably earlier, back in 1265.

The etymological dictionaries I consulted have quite a range of opinions as to why someone who wandered from village to village fixing pots and pans might be called a tinker. One theory supported by Merriam-Webster is that as they worked to repair the pots the sounds they made—tink, tink, tink—gave them their name. But the Oxford English Dictionary points out that the very first citation for tinker was as a last name, indicating a profession, and predates the earliest citation for the words tink or tinkle that don’t show up until the 1600s. The potential etymology that jumped to my mind was that they were working with tin and that might have given them their name. A&C Black’sWord Origins supports me on this although none of the big dictionaries I saw make any connection here. So far I haven’t said anything that might make one suppose that to be a tinker was such a bad thing. I mean how evil can it be to repair pots? That 1265 OED citation begins to give a clue. The citation is from local government records mentioning that the lowest tax assessment of all was for Edith the tinker. So as a profession being a tinker was about as low as you could get.

We still occasionally hear the phrase that something isn’t worth a tinker’s damn. This too reflects something of low worth because tinkers were seen as lowlifes who swore and cursed as a matter of course. Particularly in the north of England and Scotland the word tinker was applied not only to people who roamed around fixing kitchenware, but to any vagrant or itinerant. And that’s really where the word gets its distasteful flavour. In ages past when most people were born, lived out their lives and died within a few square miles, these wandering people were seen as strange and dangerous. Sometimes they were indeed cheats, but even when they weren’t, they might arrive speaking a strange dialect and not knowing the most basic local etiquette. Outsiders were also associated with trouble because the people who could more easily travel were the rich and powerful and when they blew into town the locals experienced increased taxes and other disruptions to their ordered struggle for existence. A tinker arrived without a bunch of soldiers to back him up and all too often was a target of attack.”

Charles Hodgson 04/08/2008. (Permission sought)