Frankly, My Dear, I Don't Give a...
I'm embroiled in a "damn" dispute.
A while back, I wrote that the last word in the phrase "not worth a tinker's damn" should be correctly spelled "damn," not "dam." I based this on an authoritative and reliable etymological source -- "Devious Derivations" by Hugh Rawson.
(For any of you who might be younger than 100 years old, I should explain that a "tinker" is someone who travels around mending household utensils.)
The rendering "tinker's dam" (no "n") is based on a popular theory that the phrase refers to a dam of dough or wet rags a tinker places around a spot to be flooded with solder. When the solder hardens, this dam is thrown away as worthless.
"Dam nonsense!" says Rawson. He contends the phrase arose because tinkers, who after all, perform delicate, frustrating work atop shaky kitchen tables, curse so often that their "damns" are essentially meaningless and worthless. Just think of how many D-bombs (or worse) you dropped when you cobbled together that four-drawer chest from IKEA?
Rawson cites three other reasons why his "damn" etymology is correct:
1. The earliest citation of the term, which comes from Henry David Thoreau's journal entry for April 25, 1839, spells it "damn": "'Tis true they are not worth a 'tinker's damn.'"
2. The term is probably a variation of two earlier phrases that appeared well before 1839: "not worth a damn" and "not worth a tinker's cuss."
3. Victorian propriety may have led nineteenth-century writers to euphemize "tinker's damn" to "tinker's dam."
But shortly after my column endorsing Rawson's view appeared, I received a message in support of "dam," based on a completely different explanation.
Wrote Sara Frock of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania: "When I was a child, 60-odd years ago, the tinker would make his way through our village about twice a year repairing small gadgets, fixing holes in pots and pans, sharpening scissors for whatever few pennies you could afford to give him. Almost always he would have his dog with him, almost always a female or 'dam,' and that's the origin of the phrase. I don't give a tinker's dam what your experts 'think.' This is what I know. Gotcha."
So what's the true origin -- a common curse, a temporary barrier, or a female dog? The simple truth is that nobody knows for sure. People will probably still be tinkering with the origins of this phrase a thousand years from now in hot pursuit of the "damn/dam" answer.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.
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