A Tinker’s Dam Worth a Wad of Dough

I’ve written about the expression “not worth a tinker’s damn” before. It’s been a long time since I last did so, and I still get letters, the most recent just last week--a very pleasant one from a lady named Olive Swanson--saying that “tinker’s damn” is wrong, because the proper phrase is “tinker’s dam”; so here we go again. The theory has it that a tinker’s dam is a small piece of dough or putty that was fashioned to hold molten solder in place while the tinker was repairing pots and pans. After use, the “dam” was tossed away as worthless; thus, “not worth a tinker’s dam.”

That’s a commonly known fact that seems to have found its way into dinner-party-conversational trivia for more than a century. The trouble is that it isn’t true. In the old days when tinkers traveled about the countryside toting the tools of their trade, they were considered a rather disreputable lot. In the 19th Century, the expressions “drunk as a tinker” and “swears like a tinker” were commonplace, as were, “not worth a tinker’s curse” and “not worth a tinker’s damn.”

This is not surprising. It seems to me that if the most devout and mild-mannered curate took up the tinker’s trade, perhaps as some sort of penance, and started mending metal utensils, his tools being tin snips, tongs, hammers, pliers, solder and a fire, which he must excite to white heat with a bellows, he would, within a short time, be slugging down the sauce and using words of which “damn” would be the least remarkable.

The story of the origin of the “tinker’s dam” theory is interesting. In 1877, a man named Edward H. Knight published something called “The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics.” He included what was almost certainly the first citation of the phrase “tinker’s dam” with the “wad of dough” explanation. What I suspect happened is that Knight had perhaps watched a tinker at work and inquired as to the name of the wad of dough he’d seen the tinker using as a little dam for holding something or other more or less in place. The tinker, having just tapped his left thumb with a hot hammer, cried, “Damn!” That apparently satisfied Knight, who went away smug in the discovery that a tinker’s “Damn!” was not a damn at all, but a dam. So it went into his dictionary.

Later, a British philologist named Basil Weaselword was attending a house party in Devonshire. This was about midway in the reign of Queen Victoria, and polite language certainly didn’t include the expletive “damn.” At one point during this house party, in a large room in which all the guests were gathered in conversational groups, Weaselword, chatting with two other men, said, “I don’t care a tinker’s damn what Disraeli says. . . .” One of those unpredictable and often embarrassing conversational lulls fell on the assembled company just as that escaped his lips. Heads spun in his direction, with many a cry of “Have a care, Sir!” and “Ladies present!”


Weaselword, who was, predictably, the only one at the house party to have even heard of “The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics,” explained his social gaffe: “Oh, I say, chaps! Not that, at all! D-A-M! A tinker’s d-a-m is actually . . .” and he related Edward H. Knight’s absurd theory as though it were fact. He thus became the hit of the house party and gained a reputation as a rather more than commonly interesting fellow, being conversant with such arcana as tools of the tinker’s trade.

He was also responsible for a century of lexicographic trivia.