Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:
My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.
I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):
I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.
Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:
Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.
It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.
The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:
And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.
One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.
But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:
Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.
The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:
The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.
The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.
The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.
But what about “engineer”?
The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:
A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.
Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.
The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.
Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:
Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.
Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):