May 9th, 2007
Mr. Pete: A "tinker's damn", or "tinker's cuss" depending on what part of the world you hear the phrase, is derived from the fact that apparently tinkers, those itinerant menders of pots and pans, were often colorful characters who swore like sailors. They prejoratively roamed the countryside, hither and yon goddammit and repaireded your bustificated metal cookware. Apparently they cussed so much that the words became meaningless to them, just extra punctuation for a sentence.
That's one of the stories behind the phrase, and it seems the most plausible. The second involves some explanation about a piece of equipment called a "dam" to ensure the molten metal they used didn't get away from them, and which was discarded after use and therefore worthless. But that seems to have been created as a more genteel explanation and doesn't try to retcon "cuss" into it.
Thoreau uses the "damn" phrase, even, and that Thoreau, he was a pretty smart guy. (And I don't even mean George K. Thoreau, who indeed is smart, but good ol' Henry D.)
I've only heard the second explanation... I'd guess that "tinker's damn" started as sort of a homonymic pun, then was turned to "tinker's cuss" when the original meaning was lost.
I'm trying to find any reference to a tinker's dam online that isn't presented as part of an etymological argument regarding this particular phrase... and not doing a great job of it. I guess that could just mean that the internet is more full of pedants (uh I mean... verbophiles) than it is tinkers or their aficionados, but it doesn't especially bolster my confidence in the term's provenance, at that.
Anyway, I mostly just posted to say that I think it's funny to describe how much tinkers swear by alluding to sailors. I don't know if I can explain why, it just is. It's kind of like if you said that a tinker's dam was a disposable piece of equipment that was itself not worth a sailor's shit goddammit.
I went to http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-tin1.htm
(my usual word site), and they confirm the swearing theory as the most plausible.
The "dam" in the dam theory is described there as a piece of dough rather than a piece of equipment but is dismissed as being too complicated to be true.
I have always seen it spelled as "damn" in any case.
Thanks for posting this. When I went to the above site I took a detour to "sponging house" and now I know more. :-)
OED agrees: "d. not to care, be worth, (etc.), a tinker's curse, cuss, or damn, (ellipt.) a tinker's, an intensification of the earlier 'not to care, or be worth, a curse or damn' (see CURSE n. 2 , DAMN n. 2), with reference to the reputed addiction of tinkers to profane swearing: see 1. Cf. also quot. 1884, in which 'not to care a straw' is similarly intensified. (An ingenious but baseless conjecture suggesting another origin appears in quot. 1 [1877 KNIGHT Dict. Mech., Tinker's-dam, 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'.]"
So there you go.
At the recommendation of minkrose
, I have friended you.
I was interested to realize that we both went to the same high school (ARHS). But I graduated in 1998, so I don't believe we ever encountered each other.
I believe my brother graduated in 1998. Do you know a David Parker?
He worked his way up through culinary school up in Montpelier, and is now chef at Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch resort in northern California.
I knew several Davids, but I cannot say that David Parker rings a bell. If he was 1998, I would certainly recognize him, though.
I had two younger brothers who had different last names than I, so technically we're half-brothers, but we've always considered ourselves brothers three. Ryan "Parks played Basketball and I think Baseball, and David played hockey. They got that from their dad's side (my step-dad).
I played plays on stage. I got that from my mom's side.