Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Sailor

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Sailor

Let’s circle back and revisit tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, richman, poorman, beggarman, thief.

Why did little 17th century girls enjoy counting stones and guessing who their future husbands might be? Was their choice of archetypes mere alliterative randomness?

We tend to think of specialization and complex social organization as consequences of the industrial age, but the forces that shape the imaginative division of labor have been at work for millenia. Macroeconomics and Darwin only dictate that there will be a spectrum with dull, dirty and dangerous at one end, and sexy, lucrative and powerful at another. This spectrum is what creates and sustains social and economic structures. I am not saying anything new. I am merely restating, in modern terms, what Veblen noted in Theory of the Leisure Class. From one century to the next, it is only the artistic details that change. Tinker, tailor… evolves to a different set of archetypes.

We’ve moved from slavery to false hope as the main mechanism for working with the spectrum, but whatever the means, the spectrum is here to stay. Automation may nip at its heels, but fundamentally, it cannot be changed. Why? The rhyme illustrates why.

At first sight, the tinker, tailor… rhyme represents major category errors. Richman and poorman are socioeconomic classes, while tailor, sailor and soldier are professions. Tinker (originally a term for a Scottish/Irish nomad engaged in the tinsmith profession) is a lifestyle. Beggarman and thief are categories of social exodus behaviors.

Relate them to the DDD-SLP spectrum, and you begin to see a pattern. As Theodore White noted, Richman enjoys the ultimate privilege: buying his own social identity at the SLP end of the spectrum. Poorman is stuck in the DDD end. Beggarman and thief have fallen off the edge of society, the DDD end of the spectrum, by either giving up all dignity, or sneaking about in the dark. Sailor and Tinker are successful exodus archetypes. The former is effectively a free agent. Remember that around the time this rhyme captured the popular imagination in the 17th century, the legitimized piracy and seaborne thuggery that was privateering, had created an alternative path to sexy, lucrative and powerful; one that did not rely on rising reputably to high office (the path that Samuel Pepys followed between 1633 and 1703; The Diary of Samuel Pepys remains one of the most illuminating looks at the world of work ever written). The latter, the tinker, was a neo-nomad, substituting tin-smithing for pastoralism in pre-industrial Britain.

The little girls had it right. In an age that denied them the freedom to create their own destiny, they wisely framed their tag-along life choices in the form of a rhyme that listed deep realities. Today, the remaining modern women who look to men, rather than to themselves, to define their lives, might sing a different song:

blogger, coder, soldier, consultant

rockstar, burger-flipper, welfareman, spammer

Everything changes. Everything remains the same.