Tinkers, Tittering, Tomfoolery, and One (WiR Guest Post)

Another post from The Writer’s Wrest’s virtual Writer in Residence, JHD. How fun to think about words that have memories attached and which we carry along with us. Thanks for sharing JHD!

Expressions, phrases, sayings, idioms, and words: love them or loath them. Either way, we remember them. Sometimes the remembering can be good. Other times, not so good. Sometimes they remind us of others. Sometimes one may hope and wish to never hear them again. Sometimes one may wish and hope to hear them again and again.

Tinkers. The word was introduced to me by my father with the uttering of, “What are you pair of tinkers doing”? My younger brother and I would often be out in the yard tinkering with one thing or the other. The tinkering sounds would draw the attention of our father, who was then compelled to investigate as to what we two were up to.

A tinker originally was an itinerant tinsmith who mended household utensils. Some travelling groups and gypsies adopted this lifestyle. The name was particularly associated with Irish and Scottish Highland Travellers. The word is believed to have come from the 13th century ‘tyckner’ or ‘tinkler’ a term used throughout medieval Scotland and England for a metal worker. Tinkering is the process of adapting, meddling, or adjusting something in the course of making repairs or improvements.

Sounds like we two.

Upon asking our father what a tinker was his definition was very similar to the above as he explained that when he was growing up in Ireland that the Tinkers would come out to their farm looking for the odd job. How the tinkering sounds of pots and pans and other items on their wagons could be heard long before they were seen. Hence the name. The word did take on a modern slant of referring to a mischievous child. It could be that our father used the word with both meanings in mind although he did not supply this definition. We two never did stop tinkering as we got older. The last ‘tinkering’ project we work on together was the restoration of an old 60’s Dodge pickup for his eldest son.

Tittering. The uttering of this word will always draw laughter from me. The word itself is a funny word. Tittering. Tittering. Is this word still used? To be honest, I don’t think I have heard anyone else use it other than my father. “Stop your tittering”. Seriously. If you were told this as a child would you not titter more?! Of course you would. So the more we were told to stop tittering the more we tittered. Strange how our tittering seem to always take place at the dinner table. This would infuriate our father more so.

Which to us made the tittering saga funnier still. So, more tittering would follow. We could do this because we knew our punishment would never go beyond words. Words. Words were our discipline from our father. When I say words I actually mean a full blown lecture. With the lot. The ins and outs as to why you should or should not. In-texted reference, well sourced and top quality researched material kind of lecture. Our father missed his calling I think. Funny that I should say this as I found out only a few months ago that his siblings called him ‘The Professor’.

Tomfoolery. What a word. Almost sounds like someone’s name, Tom Foolery. This word provokes the memory of using the bed as a trampoline the clothes line as a swing, water and pillow fights throughout the house, and any other foolish thing one can think of. Like, take the time when we kids decided to surprise our mother by spring cleaning the house, outside went the furniture and in went the hose. Gosh, it was fun. Have you ever tried sliding on a broom down a passage way full of water? Fun. And more fun.

Tomfoolery: From ‘Tom Fool’, an old invented name for any foolish or half-witted person. Most likely based on the earlier ‘Tom o ‘Bedlam’, a 16th century name used either for a madman let out of custody with a licence to beg or for an itinerant lunatic. Sometimes someone who feigned madness to attract symphony while begging. Tom was the name such beggars often assumed; a character in King Lear adopts both the name and disguise to escape danger. The term gradually softened to any outlandish, foolish or silly behaviour.

Now I see why our mother chose this word – we were lunatics!

Elbow Grease. Did you know that this can be purchased from your local super-market? My six year old mind believed so. My mother recited the shopping list to my older sister as we were about to depart to the local store for her. ‘We need, A, B, C, and plenty of elbow grease’. At the checkout I checked the items on the counter, A, B, C, yes! Elbow Grease, No! I told my sister that we had forgot the elbow grease. As she moved in closer to me she quietly explained that elbow grease are words that mean to ‘scrub hard’. Alas, my six year old mind was wrong. Too bad really. If my belief had been right some tasks would be a delight.

Elbow Grease: Apparently the term dates back to the 17th century when it was used in print by the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell in 1672, Rehearsal Transpros’d . “Two or three brawny Fellows in a corner, with mere ink and elbow-grease, do more harm than a hundred systematical Divines with their sweaty Preaching” Marvell was alluding to writing when he used the expression as although religious meetings could be disrupted or broken up by the speakers opponent’s, printed material could be circulated unhindered. The term was also used later in the same century in the manner that it is used now. An example can be found in the 1699 New Dictionary of the Canting Crew: Elbow-grease, a derisory term for sweat.

We learn hundreds upon hundreds of words throughout our lifetime. We are introduced to many phrases. We come across many an idiom. Yet we use only a small percentage of these words or phrases and expressions. Most of us forget who it was who taught us a word or a phrase. Some of us remember -not all words or phrases as that would be an impossibility- who taught or introduced them to us. Especially the ones that have touched us in some way or form. The ones that hold a special kind of meaning to us. A meaning beyond the learning of a word or a phrase. These are the ones we tend to favour. More often than not we are not aware that we favour them. We simply use them. On the rare occasion one’s mind may drift to the memory of the one who taught it or introduced it.

The utterings of the words, tittering and tomfoolery have not been heard by my ears for some time now. I guess this signifies that somewhere along the way things changed and some growing up took place. Well, just a tad growing up. Actually, maybe a lot of growing up. Tittering at the dinner table has been replaced by conversation of a serious nature. Tomfoolery has stop as one no longer uses certain apparatuses or furniture for a fun use as one now knows that they can be expensive to replace.

At times I yearn and wish to hear my parents utter the words, tittering and tomfoolery again, and again, as it would mean that they are in this earthly realm. As for the tinkering, that still remains with me though, as it is who I am. I am a tinker. It is why I do not know what boredom actually means. How can one be bored when there is some tinkering to do. As for elbow-grease. Well, that is an idiom all should learn and apply as it builds character. And it will always remind of how my ten year old older sister felt the need to explain my mistake in a gentle and discrete manner.


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