Q: What is the origin of the expression “don’t give a damn”? Was it ever expletive free?
A: Let’s begin with “damn.” When the word showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, “damn” was a verb meaning to condemn. It wasn’t until the 16th century that “damn” was used profanely.
English borrowed the term from Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin damnāre or dampnāre, meaning to damage or condemn. (In fact, “condemn” ultimately comes from the same Latin source as “damn.”)
In Middle English, according to Oxford English Dictionary citations, “damn” had three related meanings: (1) to doom to eternal punishment; (2) to pronounce a sentence; (3) to denounce or deplore.
Here’s an OED example for sense #1 from a homily dated at around 1325: “Sain Jon hafd gret pite / That slic a child suld dampned be” (“John the Baptist had great pity / That such a child should be damned”). Collected in English Metrical Homilies (1862), edited by John Small.
We’ve expanded this OED’s citation for sense #2: “For, sir, hit is no maystrie for a lord / To dampne a man with-oute answere of word” (“For, sire, it is no triumph for a lord / To condemn a man without answering a word”). The Legend of Good Women, circa 1385, by Geoffrey Chaucer.
And here’s an example for #3: “For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, / Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales, circa 1386, by Chaucer).
The OED says the verb “damn” began to be “used profanely” in the late 16th century “in imprecations and exclamations, expressing emphatic objurgation or reprehension of a person or thing, or sometimes merely an outburst of irritation or impatience.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from an anonymous religious tract attacking critics of the Anglican hierarchy: “Hang a spawne? drowne it; alls one, damne it!” From Pappe With Hatchet (1589), believed written by John Lyly or Thomas Nashe.
In the early 17th century, according to OED citations, “damn” showed up as a noun used “as a profane imprecation”—that is, a curse.
The earliest example is from Monsieur Thomas, a comedy by the English playwright John Fletcher, believed written between 1610 and 1616: “Rack a maids tender eares, with dam’s and divels?”
And here’s an early 18th-century example in the OED: “What! he no hear you swear, curse, speak the great Damn.” From The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe.
But by the mid-18th century—and here’s where your question comes in—the profane sense of “damn” began weakening as it was “used vaguely (in unconventional speech) in phrases not worth a damn, not to care a damn, not to give a damn,” the OED says.
The earliest such phrase, according to the dictionary, is of the “not to care a damn” variety. Here’s the first known use:
“Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut.” From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), a novel in the form of letters purportedly written by a Chinese traveler and offering an outsider’s views of Britain.
In searches of old newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found for “not give a damn” is from a late 18th-century American newspaper:
“Burk … exclaimed, that he believed it was true, and if so that he would not give a damn for the Federal villains in this country.” From the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, July 6, 1798.
As for “not worth a damn,” the earliest use we know of is cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: “To play second fiddle to Brougham … would not be worth a dam.” From a letter written by the English politician Thomas Creevey on Oct. 18, 1812.
Interestingly, the noun “curse” was once used in similar constructions. Here are the earliest known appearances—at least in Modern English—of the corresponding “curse” expressions, all cited in the OED:
“I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know” (in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 20, 1763).
“For, as to wives, a Grand Signor Need never care one curse about them!” (Thomas Moore’s Intercepted Letters, 1813).
“The Chapter on Naval Inventions is not worth a curse” (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1826).
Oxford says the use of “curse” in such expressions “possibly comes down from the Middle English not worth a kerse, kers, cres” (those are medieval spellings of “curse”). The Middle English usage dates from the late 1300s, according to Oxford citations.
But if there is a link between “not worth a curse” and the medieval “not worth a kerse,” it’s not traceable. As the dictionary adds, “historical connection between the two is not evidenced, there being an interval of more than 300 years between the examples of the Middle English and the modern phrase.”