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The Webs of Humankind says

In 1400, the biggest ships and perhaps the best navigators were Chinese. Under the Song, the Yuan, and then the Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, the Chinese had rapidly developed ship and navigation technology, and Chinese merchants had taken a large role in the booming trade between East and Southeast Asia. The Ming maintained a state shipyard that employed between 20,000 and 30,000 workers. Their ships were by far the biggest in the world, capable of carrying a thousand people. Chinese tinkerers had invented the compass, and Chinese sailors used it more than sailors elsewhere.

Is it correct that "tinker" and "tinkerer" by definition may imply "unskillful"?

Does the author intend to say that those who invented the compass were unskillful, in a paragraph started with a positive connotation?

Are "tinker" and "tinkerer" synonymous, both referring to people who tinker?

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    You can't by definition imply something. Imply means "suggest" and is dependent on context and shared knowledge, but "by definition" means it's indisputable fact requiring no shared knowledge or preconditions. You need to distinguish the literal meaning of a word from the connotations/implications (the things it often suggests). Here, tinker often implies amateur or unsystematic work, but doesn't have a precise definition that requires those things (e.g. a professional or an expert can tinker).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 24 at 13:20
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    A tinker is somebody working with tin or other metals (in Ireland, they would travel door-to-door offering to sharpen knives and mend pots, and it became a pejorative name for the travelling community). A tinkerer is somebody who makes small adjustments to things, beneficial or not, and is not synonymous, even though the associated verb is tinker.
    – Henry
    Commented Apr 24 at 15:29
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    @Henry I suspect that the OP meant "to tinker" as in 'one who tinkers'. "A tinker" is a far less commonly used expression, at least round these parts.
    – MikeB
    Commented Apr 25 at 15:44
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    @StuartF Re: "You can't by definition imply something". This is patently false. Imply does not only mean "suggest". For example, the definition of an irrational number implies that it is not an integer. Commented Apr 26 at 9:18

7 Answers 7

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No, but it does suggest an unsystematic approach. It suggests a practical approach of "try something, make a small change, repeat" The compass was not developed by first creating a scientific theory of magnetism, but by skilled but practical people.

However, I find the choice of word odd, in the context.

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    Probably most technology created before the scientific revolution was created by tinkering -- there just wasn't enough understanding of physics to design complex devices from basic principles.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 24 at 14:32
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    I broadly agree: no underlying theory, but possibly a lot of skill and determination. More recently, Shuji Nakamura made efficient blue LEDs after a great deal of tinkering with his fabrication equipment: he knew roughly what he was trying to do but had to repeatedly modify his equipment to get gas-flow patterns that actually worked. Commented Apr 25 at 7:26
  • Thanks. What is the contrast introduced by "but" in "skilled but practical people"? What would you call someone who did something from "theory" as opposed to "skilled but practical"?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 27 at 0:54
  • Well I find the usage of "tinkerer" odd, perhaps there is some reason for it in the rest of the book. The contrast is "not only skilled but also practical". In contrast to a scientist who is interested in understanding the world, or an engineer that uses scientific knowledge to guide their craft.
    – James K
    Commented Apr 27 at 6:34
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JamesK provided a good answer but does not address all your questions. The word “tinker” can be used as a noun or as a verb. Tinker (n) is an itinerant peddler, a wandering salesman of varied small goods. To tinker (vb) is the activity of a tinkerer (one who tinkers) and is used to describe the activity of creating novel devices meant to serve a specific purpose. An individual inventing improvised gadgets in their garage is a good example of a tinkerer. They will often use unorthodox methods to create these devices but they are far from unskilled.

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    Did you forget the -er at the noun form? Commented Apr 24 at 13:56
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    I didn’t forget it, I used the verb form of tinkerer later in the post. A tinker and a tinkerer are different things. However, a tinkerer (n) does tinker(vb). I know, confusing, huh? Commented Apr 24 at 14:54
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    Of important note - neither the noun nor verb imply "unskilled". Many tinkerers are highly skilled which is what enables them to create new things from a stack of otherwise unrelated parts.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Apr 24 at 17:07
  • @FreeMan I do mention that they are far from unskilled. If you look at some definitions though, you will find the word unskilled used. I will eventually learn how to post links here but try Merriam-Webster under tinker. Commented Apr 25 at 18:22
  • @GeorgeMenoutis Are you asking whether a tinker "tinks"? If so, wouldn't "tink" be a synonym for "sell (small goods)"?
    – Jed Schaaf
    Commented Apr 26 at 7:07
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"Tinker" and "tinkerer" may indeed imply "unskilful". They don't necessarily imply that, however. They can be synonyms, but "tinker" can additionally be used as a verb.

The author certainly did not intend to imply that the Chinese inventors were unskilful. He may have intended to imply that they were nonprofessional (as indeed they were by modern standards), but I would expect that he primarily wanted to avoid the phrase "Chinese inventors had invented the compass".

Adding to my speculation on the word choice, note that the phrase "Chinese <profession>" is repeated several times in the quoted paragraph. For some reason I can't properly explain, the repetition of the phrase sounds good, but the repetition of invent(or/ed) in a sentence does not.

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    I don’t think tinker and tinkerer can be synonyms. See my answer. Unless of course it is something peculiar to American English? Commented Apr 24 at 16:32
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    @RobertDavies I wouldn’t say it’s common, but tinker (n) is sometimes used to refer to someone who tinkers; I think this usage is primarily American (e.g., the American Heritage Dictionary includes this sense, but OALD doesn’t). Commented Apr 24 at 23:19
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    I think it might be better to use nonprofessional here rather than unprofessional. There's a slight distinction between invention not being their job rather than behaving against professional expectations. Commented Apr 25 at 9:42
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    @RobertDavies I would say that they both refer to somebody who tinkers and that's what I meant, but I suppose if you drill down into it 'tinkers' would refer to different activities in the two cases (i.e. the professional activities of a tinker vs fiddling about with things). I'll think about how to tweak my answer.
    – aantia
    Commented Apr 25 at 10:55
  • Tinkerers are not lacking in skills. They just don't do the thing professionally or as a trade.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 29 at 20:14
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As this song suggests, tinkers traveled, and earned their living by mending pots (among other activities). They weren't unskilled: they had different skills from the settled people.

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  • Yes, but specific to one ethnic group - Tinker is the second wave of Roma, the UK equivalent of Sinti, thenational.scot/news/… (I'm about 1/4, that side of my family settled down a hundred years ago) Commented Apr 25 at 20:59
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    I'm not sure that there is a genetic link between Tinkers and Roma: this study doesn't support it. Maybe the effect of a similar lifestyle for the two peoples? Maybe one that was forced on them initially, but which was later perceived to provide independence? Commented Apr 25 at 22:34
  • That study is about Irish Travellers, which is not the same ethnic group. There are some overlap in 'people who get called tinkers' and other traveller groups, but the primary meaning in England was Roma. Commented Apr 27 at 9:53
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Is it correct that "tinker" and "tinkerer" by definition may imply "unskillful"?

Well, not by definition, per se. Nor is it a criticism of their skill level.

In engineering circles, it's somewhat common to see/hear someone labeled a "tinkerer" because they don't/didn't employ a rigorous, engineering-based approach to something for which they believe such an approach was warranted. The implication is that they instead used an experimental, guess-and-check sort of approach. I've encountered this most often among mechanical engineers.

It can have two connotations, depending on usage. If the person in question is known to have the necessary engineering skills, then calling them a tinkerer is essentially accusing them of doing shoddy work. Otherwise, it means they are out of their depth (i.e. "leave this to the professionals").

EDIT: in either case, it should be considered more teasing than an outright insult.

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So a good summary of these answers would be to consider the developers of the compass as people that were not specifically trained to make a compass, and would not consider it their profession. They "figured out" how to build a compass and passed that information on to others, but not during what would be considered training or during an apprenticeship, hence the "tinkerers" label. If you think that a carpenter or brick layer would normally go through extensive training, mostly on the job, they would be considered professional bricklayers or carpenters. In this case there most likely weren't professional compass makers originally, but I wouldn't doubt that these people were skilled at some other sort of intricate design and building tasks (like a clock maker, or mechanical toy maker).

More recently, mentioning a skilled person "tinkering" with something generally meant that they were not an expert or trained in the subject, and were dealing with ad-hoc learning assembled from many sources to experiment on how to accomplish some task.

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In British English, 'tinker' or 'tinkerer' is an archaic term for a travelling tinsmith who repaired things like pans. So, in history, it referred to a skilled person. However, over time it came to be used to refer to various kinds of travelling communities offering trades, often in a negative way. In modern use, no tradesperson is known by the term, and we mainly use the verb to tinker in the way you referred to - to suggest someone unskilled has attempted to fix something and either caused new problems or made the original problem worse.

However, your text refers to Chinese tinkerers, and it seems the term retained its meaning to refer to a skilled profession in that culture for a lot longer. This page notes that Chinese tinkerers worked not only with tin but with cast iron and steel, repairing woks among other things and that this tradition carried on into the 20th century.

So it would seem that your reference is to a recognised trade, especially as it relates to the invention of the nautical compass which is believed to be some time during the Han Dynasty, which ruled China from 206 BCE to 220 CE.

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