"Tinker Tailor" is a counting game, nursery rhyme and fortune telling song traditionally played in England, that can be used to count cherry stones, buttons, daisy petals and other items. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 802. Its American version is commonly used by children for "counting out," e.g. for choosing who shall be "It" in a game of tag.
The most common modern version is:
The most common American version is:
- Rich Man, Poor Man,
- Beggar Man, Thief,
- Doctor, Lawyer, (or "Merchant")
- Indian Chief.
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 Taylor,
- 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 American tradition that the modern lyrics solidified.
A. A. Milne's Now We are Six (1927) had the following version of "Cherry stones":
- Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,
- Or what about a cowboy, policeman, jailer, engine driver, or a pirate chief?
- Or what about a ploughman or a keeper at the zoo,
- Or what about a circus man who lets the people through?
- Or the man who takes the pennies on the roundabouts and swings,
- Or the man who plays the organ or the other man who sings?
- Or what about the rabbit man with rabbits in his pockets
- And what about a rocket man who's always making rockets?
- Oh it's such a lot of things there are and such a lot to be
- That there's always lots of cherries on my little cherry tree.
The "tinker, tailor" rhyme is one part of a longer counting or divination game, often played by young girls to foretell their futures; it runs as follows:
- When shall I marry?
- This year, next year, sometime, never.
- What will my husband be?
- Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich-man, poor-man, beggar-man, thief.
- What will I be?
- Lady, baby, gypsy, queen.
- What shall I wear?
- Silk, satin, cotton, rags (or silk, satin, velvet, lace)
- How shall I get it?
- Given, borrowed, bought, stolen.
- How shall I get to church?
- Coach, carriage, wheelbarrow, cart.
- Where shall I live?
- Big house, little house, pig-sty, barn.
During the divination, the girl will ask a question and then count out a series of actions or objects by reciting the rhyme. The rhyme is repeated until the last of the series of objects or actions is reached. The last recited term or word is that which will come true. Buttons on a dress, petals on a flower, bounces of a ball, number of jumps over a rope, etc., may be counted.
There are innumerable variations of the rhyme:
- Daisy, daisy, who shall it be?
- Who shall it be who will marry me?
- Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief,
- Doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief,
- Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor.
- Grandmother, Grandmother,
- What shall I wear?
- Silk, satin, calico, cotton.
- Where shall we live?
- Big house, little house, pigsty, barn.
- How many children shall we have?
- One, two, three, four, five, six, etc.
A 2013 variation:
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor,
- Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief,
- Old Man, Young Man, Lawyer, Jailer,
- Captain, Pirate, Fisherman, Chief,
- Plowman, Cooper, Farmer, Teacher,
- Banker, Gunner, Gardener, Cook,
- Burglar, Boxer, Baker, Preacher,
- Writer, Politician, or Crook
References in popular culture
- In the John le Carré spy novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the suspects for the mole in MI6 are given codenames based on the rhyme.
- Irwin Shaw's novel Rich Man, Poor Man refers also to the rhyme
- The Ellery Queen novel, Double, Double, uses a version of this rhyme to connect a series of murders. His version goes:
- Rich man, poor man,
- Beggar man, thief.
- Doctor, lawyer,
- Merchant, chief.
- In J. M. Coetzee's novel Slow Man, character Elizabeth Costello postulates on Drago Jokic's future, claiming he can "be sailor or soldier or tinker or tailor" (p. 191).
- Michael Ondaatje's novel, Anil's Ghost, features the main character Anil uncovering clues to the murder of a skeleton she finds and names 'Sailor' after the rhyme, as well as the uncovering of three others she names 'Tinker', 'Tailor' and 'Soldier'.
- Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts contains a passage wherein a woman playfully divines her future by counting cherry stones to the rhyme: Now there was cherry tart. Mrs. Manresa was counting the stones. "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, apothecary, ploughboy . . . that's me!" she cried, delighted to have it confirmed by the cherry stones that she was a wild child of nature.
- There is also a passing reference to the rhyme in Janet Frame's short story "Keel and Kool" (included in her 1951 collection entitled The Lagoon): "And Eva showed me some new bits to Tinker Tailor, said Joan, biting off a piece of grass with her teeth - Boots, shoes, slippers, clodhoppers, silk, satin, cotton, rags - it's what you're married in."
- Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Taylors, includes: "For the body must have been brought from somewhere - how? Car, lorry, cart, wheelbarrow, truck...? It reminded one of 'Tinker, tailor...'".
- In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, "Brief Lives", Chapter 8 (issue #48), Delirium recites the rhyme, then picks more cherries and adds her own lines: "Elf lord... ivy...vinegar...toad...virgin...pilgrim...kangaroo..."
- An issue of the Marvel Comics X-Men, concerning the character Mystique, was titled "Tinker, Tailor, Mutant, Spy".
- In Thomas Hardy's novel, Jude the Obscure, a drinking companion of the titular character is called Tinker Taylor.
- In Tom Clancy's novel, "Rainbow Six", the rhyme is used in John Clark's thoughts regarding the life his grandson might lead.
- The barbershop standard Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby contains the lyrics "rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Doctor, lawyer, indian chief, we all are bound to fall."
- The song "Thief" by the English garage rock band Thee Headcoats describes each of the men from the rhyme trying to steal the singer's girl, each of whom he kills except for the thief, who is successful.
- One man did what no man could, stole my girl that's understood
- What he did was beyond belief, that man was nothing but a common thief!
- Tinker tailor soldier sailor rich man poor man beggar man, THIEF!
- A verse from the Noël Coward song "Half-Caste Woman" goes as follows:
- Tinker, tailor, Soldier, Sailor,
- Rich man, Poor man, beggar man, thief,
- Questioning the same refrain.
- A verse in the Irish rebel song "On the One Road" goes:
- Tinker, tailor, every mother's son,
- Butcher, baker, shouldering a gun,
- Rich man, poor man, every man in line,
- All together just like Auld Lang Syne!
- The Yardbirds recorded "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor" for the album Little Games using this rhyme in one of the verses: "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor / Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief / Doctor, baker, fine shoe-maker / Wise man, madman, taxman, please".
- A line in the song "Dandelion" by The Rolling Stones echoes the rhyme: "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailors' lives / Rich man, poor man, beautiful daughters, wives".
- There is a reference on the Queen II album of the rock band Queen. "The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke" contains the lyrics: "Soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, ploughboy / Waiting to hear the sound".
- The song "Cross-Eyed Mary", by prog rock band Jethro Tull featured in the album Aqualung, begins with the line "Who would be a poor man, a beggar man, a thief, if he had a rich man in his hand?"
- Art rock band Supertramp included the line "Soldier, sailor, who's your tailor?" on the song "Just Another Nervous Wreck" from the Breakfast in America album.
- AC/DC include the line "Rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief" in their song "Sin City".
- Tom Waits' song "Heartattack and Vine" includes the line "Doctor, lawyer, beggar man, thief".
- Tom Waits' song "Soldier's Things" from the album Swordfishtrombones includes the line "A tinker, a tailor, a soldier's things".
- The Rutles' parody of The Beatles' "Goose Steppin' Mama" includes the lines "While you tinker with some tailor, Someone sold yer to a sailor".
- Greg Graffin's closing song "One More Hill" on his album Cold as the Clay opens with the line "Rich man, poor man, beggar or thief, no matter which one in this life you lead".
- The chorus of The Kingston Trio's "Take Her Out of Pity" from their 1961 album Close-Up (The Kingston Trio album) is "Come a landsman, a pinsman, a tinker or a tailor; a doctor, a lawyer, a soldier or a sailor; a rich man, a poor man, a fool or a witty; don't let her die an old maid, but take her out of pity."
- Harry Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet features a song called "Mr. Tinker" which opens with the line "Mr. Tinker was a tailor".
- Traffic's 1968 album "Traffic" featured the song "Means to an End" which features the line " I'm a means to an end and everybody's friend, from a rich man, poor man, beggar man or thief."
- The British group Genesis included in their album Nursery Cryme a song called "Seven Stones" with a clear reference to this accounting play
- Rich Man, Poor Man was an ABC miniseries
- Television show Dead Like Me includes the line, "In a lifetime we get to be many things. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Doctor, lawyer, indian chief. Daughter, sister, scout, college drop-out, friend, dead girl. Or maybe we just play the parts for a couple hours until the curtain falls," in the closing narrative voice over of episode 11, titled "Ashes To Ashes", of season 2.
- Television show Danger Man episode "Don't Nail Him Yet" -- Patrick McGoohan recites the first stanza when he catches a navy officer selling secrets and the contact demands to know who McGoohans is.
- The television show Star Trek: Voyager references this rhyme in the title of the fourth episode of the show's sixth season called "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy".
- In the television series To the Manor Born, season 2 episode 2, Audrey fforbes-Hamilton looks for omens by counting up the cherry stones on her plate: "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor...silk, satin, cotton, rags...coach, carriage, wheelbarrow, donkey cart."
- In the television series Eternal Law (TV series), during the opening is narrated: "Whenever human beings are in trouble, that's where you'll find them. They may be tinker or tailors, soldiers or sailors, nurses or bin men, or strangers in the street. Perhaps even, and this is hard to believe, I know, lawyers."
- German Punkrock band Die Toten Hosen use the rhyme
- "It's an open invitation for you to join our little crew.
- You can be small, tall, fat or thin, this still applies to you.
- Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, beggarman or thief,
- tax inspector, teacher or policeman on the beat,
- join us now, it'll be alright, every day for us is like a Saturday night."
- in their song "Chaos Bros."
- In the television series Murder, She Wrote, season 8 episode 15 is titled "Tinker, Tailor, Liar, Thief."
- In the television series Mulberry, season 1 episode 3, Mulberry solves a newspaper puzzle Miss Farnaby is working on: How do the letters TTSSRPBT relate to something you would find on a dining table? Answer: Counting out plum stones.
- At 14, Judy Garland sings the lyric "Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief feel the way I do..." in the song It's Love I'm After in a scene from Pigskin Parade (1936), her feature film debut, three years before The Wizard of Oz. 
- In the 1937 Merrie Melodies cartoon, She Was an Acrobat's Daughter, the action takes place in a movie theater. The feature, Petrified Florist, has a cast of characters which includes the hero (Lester Coward), the shero (Betie Savis), rich man (John P Sockefeller), poor man (John Dough), beggar man (Kismet), thief (Oph Bagdad), doctor (Jekyll), lawyer (Ima Shyster), then repeats: poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer several times.
- Judy Garland sings "We must have music! Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief - must have music! Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief - must have music!" in the song We Must Have Music which was deleted from the final version of the film Ziegfeld Girl (1941). 
- In the Abbott and Costello film The Time of Their Lives (1946) the rhyme is used by a medium in a seance so that the Costello character, a tinker's ghost, can identify himself.
- "Tinker tailor soldier sailor" is a line in a song sung by Lana Turner in the 1954 film Betrayed.
- In the 2011 espionage film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Tomas Alfredson, the suspects are codenamed "Tinker" (Alleline), "Tailor" (Haydon), "Soldier" (Bland), "Poorman" (Esterhase) and "Beggarman" (Smiley).
- In the fourth volume of Hellsing Ultimate, a British warship is taken over by a Millennium vampire named Rip Van Winkle. At several points in the OVA she says "Tinker, Tailor. Soldier, Sailor... My bullet punishes all without distinction."
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), pp. 404-5.
- J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England (London: J. R. Smith, 1849), p. 222.
- A. A. Milne,Now We are Six (London: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1927), pp. 19-21.
- Gomme, Alice Bertha. The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. London: David Nutt (1898).
- Hazlitt, W. Carew. Faiths and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, Past and Current, With Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated (Brand's Popular Antiquities of Great Britain). London: Reeves and Turner (1905).