Tinkering with the facts
Hi, Terry. Your WWW site is cool. Could you please steer me in the right direction in finding the roots/meaning of not worth a tinker's dam (also spelled damn). Thank you very much.
OK, this is a slightly complicated one, involving some supposition. A dam was a small Indian coin, so the expression not worth a dam, which became common a couple of hundred years ago, is self-explanatory (but see below).
But the spelling damn was and still is common, shadowing the much older phrase not worth a curse (or kerse) which simply indicated that curses were worth very little. So it is likely that not worth a dam immediately gained resonance because of the older curse phrase and the operative word probably was taken - by those who had no experience of Indian coins - to be damn anyway.
So far so good. Now, the Irish version of the travelling people known as Gypsies is tinkers. There appears to be no relationship between them, although the stereotypes associated with them are similar.
The tinkers are ethnic Irish, not Romanies, and supposedly descended from 12 families who were dispossessed by Cromwell centuries ago and started travelling because they had no place to live.
The term tinkers is politically incorrect these days. They are now known as travelling people or travellers. But originally they became known as tinkers because (like Gypsies) they were travelling tinsmiths and horse traders. When they arrived in a village the locals would bring their utensils to be repaired, so they were, to a certain extent, valued members of the community.
The 20th century finished that: motor vehicles replaced horses and aluminium pots and pans replaced tin ones. The tinkers lost their perceived value and their reputation declined sharply: tinkers were worth nothing, in many people's minds.
Hence a tinker's damn was worth even less than an ordinary one.
But (drawing a deep breath) a dam is also a small piece of clay which is used in mending pots and pans. In this context it is related to the dams that store water: a tinsmith's dam would be used to prevent molten metal from running to places it wasn't welcome.
Just to complicate matters, there is the slight possibility that the word damn in the tinker's version of the phrase may also relate to horses. As I said, they were horse traders, and in fact often still are. My sister in Dublin used to dread their arrival because they would let their horses run free and she didn't appreciate having her flowers devoured by big shaggy beasts of which she was wary.
So not worth a tinker's dam could also be a reflection of the supposed value of the horses the tinkers traded.
To summarise: the dam of the tinkers may or may not have preceded the Indian coin in terms of people's use of the phrase. The two are so intermingled that one can't be sure any more, but it is likely that the Indian reference strengthened the tinker's one.
There. That's enough supposition for one day.
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