So Now The Word Tinker Is Racist, Is It?


We can, I think, agree that any official use of the word “Gyppo” or the like would be considered racist in these modern times. But that doesn’t mean that a word which has negative connotations must also be racist. Or does it? This being the question we face here, with the use of the word “tinker“.

Homelessness minister accused of racist remarks about rough sleepers
Exclusive: Heather Wheeler urged to quit after she referred to ‘old tinkers, knife-cutters’

Presumably knife cutters isn’t being regarded as racist.

The homelessness minister, Heather Wheeler, has apologised after leaked emails showed her using “racist” language to describe rough sleepers before she joined the government. In an email sent in October 2017 to a homeless charity three months before she became minister, the Conservative MP for South Derbyshire described rough sleepers in her constituency as “the traditional type, old tinkers, knife-cutters wandering through”.

Sure and perhaps my experience is coloured by living in a place where we do still have knife cutters awandering. Pushing their bicycle – which is inverted to turn the knife wheel – and blowing a whistle with a certain distinctive tone and tune. Wave from the window to catch attention and he’ll come and sharpen the set for a fee.

But tinker:

Wheeler issued an apology for her “inappropriate language”, and said it “is not at all representative of the great cultural contribution and rich heritage that the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities make to this country”. Michelle Gavin, from Friends, Families and Travellers, a leading national charity working on behalf of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, said the language was “disgraceful”.

“The word ‘tinker’ is a racist term used to put down Irish Travellers. To think that a government minister is using this language is disgraceful,” she said. “Irish Traveller children should not have to grow up in a society where government ministers show such contempt for their culture, heritage and identity.”

Well, it’s hardly contempt. Tinker has a simple and accurate meaning. Peripatetic artisan.

Again, perhaps from personal experience. Many English names are occupations – Smith, Thatcher, Miller and so on. A “worstall” is someone who knows how to build barns – so the story goes at least, one I’ve not bothered to check. These days, think those Amish barn raisings where everyone turns out to get the thing built. There has to be the one person who knows how to do it – the worstall. Given that barn raisings aren’t an everyday activity in any one location, but one that is common enough over a large enough area, a peripatetic artisan therefore. So too with menders of pots and pans.

But, you know, modern sensibilities. Which leads to the question. Is “tinker” actually a racist word these days?

Oh, and by the way. If traveller culture must be protected, what about our own culture and language? Shouldn’t that be protected too?

And finally, of course, there’s the point that she’s got who the rough sleepers are wrong. There’s a pass through contingent of runaways and so on. Most of whom are out there for days at most. The hardcore is people with significant metal health or addiction issues. Far more to do with the closing of the asylums, care in the community, than any other cause.

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