I'm watching the movie called Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I don't get the title. It appears to be some kind of play on words or a double meaning.

First, I thought it was just a list of professions but I'm rejecting that theory based on the absence of commas between the words as well as the capitalization of them. They don't seem to describe each other adjectivisticly, i.e. it's not a soldierish spy who is a tinkering tailor.

As far I can understand the plot, I can definitely fit in the spy and soldier somehow. Tinker might be used as a term for mischiefing kid so it might correspond to the dirty trickery in the domain of espionage but we're getting a bit too creative already. And how tailor would suit the list is a black void to me.

What does the title mean?

  • 4
    Does this help? en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinker,_Tailor
    – The Photon
    Aug 23, 2020 at 22:45
  • 24
    You could easily have found the answer by doing some elementary research. Why didn't you?
    – BillJ
    Aug 24, 2020 at 7:15
  • 2
    In addition to research answering the question, I would also suggest that the movie does quite a good job of explaining the concept during its course.
    – Cronax
    Aug 24, 2020 at 14:26
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    @BillJ At the risk of causing an infected and meaningless discussion, I need to correct your premise in your question. It could not have been easily found and I have done research. Perhaps you're mistaken how easy it's to find, given that one hasn't knowledge of the original rhyme. Perhaps I put too much emphasis on spy in my search. At any rate, I find your comment rather pointless at this stage (10 upvotes and good answer accepted). Perhaps I'm misinterpreting your intention, in which case, my apology and please do elaborate. Aug 24, 2020 at 19:13
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    @Cronax As I wrote to BillJ, I believe that you're overestimating the easiness of finding out the answer given that one has no previous awareness of the rhyme. As for the contents, I'm 65 minutes into the movie and I haven't heard any of the terms in the title (which might be chalked up to my hearing impediment). Also, I don't quite follow the plot, to be honest. Perhaps the movie is above my cognitive level, how embarrassing that may be. Aug 24, 2020 at 19:17

2 Answers 2


A quick search reveals the following information.

(From Wikipedia)

Control, chief of the Circus, suspects one of the five senior intelligence officers at the Circus to be a long-standing Soviet mole and assigns code names with the intention that should his agent Jim Prideaux uncover information about the identity of the mole, Prideaux can relay it back to the Circus using a simple, easy-to-recall codename. The names are derived from the English children's rhyme "Tinker, Tailor":

Tinker, tailor,
soldier, sailor,
rich man, poor man,
beggarman, thief.

Alleline was "Tinker", Haydon was "Tailor", Bland was "Soldier", Toby Esterhase was "Poor Man", and George Smiley was "Beggarman" ("sailor" was not used due to its similar sound to "tailor".)

As for the origins of the children's rhyme:

A similar rhyme has been noted in William Caxton's, The Game and Playe of the Chesse (c. 1475), in which pawns are named: "Labourer, Smith, Clerk, Merchant, Physician, Taverner, Guard and Ribald."

The first record of the opening four professions being grouped together is in William Congreve's Love for Love (1695), which has the lines:

A Soldier and a Sailor, a Tinker and a Tailor, Had once a doubtful strife, sir.

When James Orchard Halliwell collected the rhyme in the 1840s, it was for counting buttons with the lines: "My belief – a captain, a colonel, a cow-boy, a thief." The version printed by William Wells Newell in Games and Songs of American Children in 1883 was: "Rich man, Poor man, beggar-man, thief, Doctor, lawyer (or merchant), Indian chief", and it may be from this tradition that the modern American lyrics solidified.

Essentially, it is indeed a list of essentially random professions, in imitation of various historical lines.

  • "and rich man doesn't seem to be applicable" Aug 25, 2020 at 10:57

There is an old children's counting rhyme, used after eating fruit with stones, such as cherries, when the stones are left on the child's plate, or, e.g., when removing petals from a flower. The idea is that they can tell what job or profession they will have when grown up, or in the case of girls, what job their husband will have (I said it was old). For each stone, petal, etc, the player says a job. The last one will be their job, or their husband's, when they grow up. One well known version is "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief". If more than eight items are present, the list is started again at the beginning. Various spies in the book and film have code names on the list. Punctuation such as commas is usually omitted from book and film titles.

Tinker Tailor (rhyme)

How to punctuate book titles

  • When times were hard, e.g. during the world wars, the rhyme helped to avoid greed. No child aspired to be a Poor Man, Beggar Man or Thief. However soldier, sailor and rich man were pretty popular. Aug 24, 2020 at 15:05
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    In the UK, it's worth noting that this rhyme appears (with illustrations) in Now We Are Six by A A Milne, published in 1927. As the author of the Winnie the Pooh books, Milne's other books were also widely read well into the 1980s, although they're a bit old-fashioned now.
    – Graham
    Aug 24, 2020 at 21:09
  • I think this is probably the main reason most Brits know this rhyme, & by extrapolation, why le Carré never considered it necessary to explain his title to the audience. Aug 25, 2020 at 9:38
  • When I was a kid 'pooh' meaning 'crap' was always spelt with an 'h' (if you saw it all) which made us giggle at Milne. The modern 'poo' spelling looks a bit anaemic and whimsical to my eye. Aug 25, 2020 at 11:36
  • Similar to "she loves me, she loves me not..." while picking petals off a flower. As children, we used the "Rich Man, Poor Man... " sequence to determine which thief among the group of children would be "it" or conversely "out". Aug 25, 2020 at 17:48

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