A tinker’s damn
This phrase usually follows “not worth a” and means that the subject matter is worthless. You may find that damn is replaced by cuss or curse or that the final n has been dropped in an attempt to bowdlerise the phrase. I have been known to use it but have never given any thought to how it may have come about.
The starting point in our exploration is the term tinker. The noun tinker has been in use since the 13th century at least often pejoratively, to describe a craftsman, usually itinerant, who mended pots, kettles and other metal household utensils. There is no common consensus on the origin of the word although one theory, which I quite like, is that is from the noise made by lightly hammering on metal.
Although they doubtless performed a useful function, there was a general distrust in mediaeval times of strangers and travellers and tinker – the Scottish variant was tinkler – soon became a portmanteau term for vagrants, travellers, Romanies and the like. As well as enduring a peripatetic lifestyle the tinker was not known for the politeness and subtlety of their language. As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) rather sniffily notes “the low repute in which these, especially the itinerant sort, were held in former times is shown by the expressions “to swear like a tinker, a tinker’s curse or damn, as drunk or as quarrelsome as a tinker””. A tinker had become firmly established as a simile for a reprobate.
Moving on into the 18th century phrases such as “not giving a curse or a damn” or “not worth a curse or a damn” became common as expressions of studied indifference or worthlessness. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in an essay in 1760, “not that I care three damns what figure I may cut” and one of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, wrote in a letter in 1763 “I do not conceive that any thing can happen ..which you would give a curse to know”.
Perhaps it is not surprising, given the tinker’s noted predilection for swearing, that the two were conflated into one by the early 19th century. John McTaggert wrote in his The Scottish Gallovidian Dictionary of 1824, “a tinkler’s curse she did na care” while Henry David Thoreau noted in his journal in 1839, “’tis true they are not worth a tinker’s damn”. Towards the end of the century Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in his novel, St Ives, published in 1894, “I care not a tinker’s damn for his ascension”.
What is not worth a tinker’s damn is Edward H Knight’s alternative suggestion of the derivation of the phrase which appeared in his 1877 edition of The Practical Dictionary of Mechanics. There he defines a tinker’s dam (note the absence of the n) as “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 proverb usually involving the wrong spelling of the otherwise innocent word dam”. Alas, for Knight there are earlier examples to be found, all of which restore the innocent n.
And to finish off, to tinker appeared as a verb meaning to work as a tinker around 1590 and then acquired a secondary meaning of being engaged in a worthless or useless way in the mid 17th century. Throughout the centuries the tinker has had to battle with a bad reputation.