Sunday, April 05, 2009

Tinkering with the Dam

Recently, I have run across the same spurious etymology in three different places: a web site, a magazine, and a newspaper column. This tells me that it’s widespread.

The story is that “not worth a tinker’s damn” should be spelled tinker’s dam because it doesn’t refer to profanity. Here’s the tale as it appeared in a recent newspaper column:

“This came from the craft of tinkers who once traveled the countryside mending tin cookware. Small holes in pots and pans were repaired with solder, and the tinker would mold a small strip of clay around the hole to prevent the solder from spreading across the surface. This worthless bit of clay would be washed off, leaving a neat repair.” [Journal-Advocate, Sterling, Colorado]

Tinkers there certainly were, and they were generally an unsavory lot. Their modern counterparts are known as The Travelers. They‘re the folks who show up at your door offering to repair your chimney (having knocked out a few bricks unbeknownst to you) or who offer to seal your driveway, spreading what is actually used motor oil. They’re gone before you notice the scam.

One of my Irish mother’s disciplinary weapons when I was a wee lad was to tell me that if I didn’t behave, she’d let the tinkers spirit me away the next time they came through. At times, that was a very appealing idea.

The tinkers of Scotland and Ireland were itinerant gypsies. They had no roots, and rightly or wrongly, they were considered scam artists, the dregs of society. Their everyday speech was laced with profanities -- and those were just the women! So tinker’s damn is correct.

Rather than merely repeat opinion, I should document this. My source is the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Chronology tips the balance in this case.

Tinker’s Curse and Tinker’s Damn showed up in print starting in the 1820s and 1830s. Tinkers were notorious for their vulgar language. So many vulgarities emerged from their potty mouths that they lost all shock value.

Tinker’s Dam, referring to the alleged gutter of dough or clay used to contain solder on a mended metal plate, doesn’t even appear until the year 1877. It was a Victorian attempt to clean things up. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, it is “an ingenious but baseless conjecture.”

SIDEBAR: Wicked Tinkers

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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