The Grammarphobia Blog

A tinker’s damn

Q: I get a kick out of something John Sterling, the Yankees radio announcer, says: “I don’t give a tinker’s darn.” Tinkers didn’t darn; they made clay dams on work tables to hold water to cool the knives they sharpened. I believe Sterling is confusing “dam” with “damn,” and thinks he’ll get in trouble with the FCC if he says that word over the air!

A: We’re not familiar with Sterling’s broadcasts. If he does use that expression, he’s taking liberties with a common English idiom, though not because of confusion about the wording.

The original expression was indeed “tinker’s damn,” not “tinker’s dam.” In the version you cite, the watered-down “darn” is being used in place of “damn” as a milder word for the curse.

By the way, the watered-down version isn’t all that uncommon. We googled “tinker’s darn” and got 2,680 hits, including one from Vice President Joseph Biden when he was a senator.

In commenting on CNN in 2003 about the fighting ability of the Iraqi security forces, Biden said: “None of them are worth a tinker’s darn.”

But why “tinker’s damn”? It’s an interesting story.

“Tinker,” a word that’s been in English since the 1200s or earlier, is of uncertain origin.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a craftsman (usually itinerant) who mends pots, kettles, and other metal household utensils.”

Tinkers were not exactly looked up to, and the word “tinker” (or “tinkler” in Scotland) was often used to mean “vagrant” or “Gypsy,” largely because tramps and Gypsies frequently worked as tinkers.

And as a class, tinkers were not known for their polite language.

As the OED says, “The low repute in which these, esp. the itinerant sort, were held in former times is shown by the expressions to swear like a tinker, a tinker’s curse or damn, as drunk or as quarrelsome as a tinker, etc.”

The “curse” and “damn” versions were variations on an earlier theme.

In the 18th century, expressions like “not give a curse/damn” or “not care a curse/damn” or “not worth a curse/damn” were common.

In 1763, for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter, “I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know.”

And in 1760, Oliver Goldsmith wrote in an essay: “Not that I care three damns what figure I may cut.”

When the 19th century rolled around, the OED says, such expressions became intensified as “not to care a tinker’s damn,” “not worth a tinker’s curse,” and so on.

The dictionary traces this usage to “the reputed addiction of tinkers to profane swearing.”

The first such citation in the OED  is from John Mactaggart’s The Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia (1824): “A tinkler’s curse she did na care.”

And here are a couple of “damn” versions:

“ ’Tis true they are not worth a ‘tinker’s damn’ ”   (1839, from Henry David Thoreau’s journal);

“I care not a Tinker’s Damn for his ascension” (1894, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel St. Ives).

The mistaken origin you suggest was proposed by Edward H. Knight in The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics (1877). Knight defined “tinker’s dam” this way:

“A wall of dough raised around a place which a plumber desires to flood with a coat of solder. The material can be but once used; being consequently thrown away as worthless, it has passed into a proverb, usually involving the wrong spelling of the otherwise innocent word ‘dam.’ ”

The OED calls Knight’s suggestion “an ingenious but baseless conjecture.” Apparently, the OED editors think it’s not worth a tinker’s damn.

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