Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A tinker's damn

The phrase "a tinker's damn" is usually seen in the sentence, "It's not worth a tinker's damn," referring to something that is insignificant or worthless.

No one does this sort of work anymore, but there used to be men working as "tinkers," whose job it was to go from house to house fixing things.  Every so often in the old days, the tinker would come down the lane, and he would come in and repair pots and pans, sharpen the knives, tighten the loose hinge on the shutter, and batten down the hatches (for those living on houseboats.)

These men, talented as they were, were not known for gentlemanly behavior.  This was a rough life they led, going door to door in a horse and wagon, bunking in second-rate taverns, swilling warm beer and eating venison stew, or worse.
So, they cursed.  A lot.

Now, if you know someone who is especially upstanding and pious, it's notable to be around them when they are trying to change a tire one rainy cold night alongside a dark road when the tire iron slips and they can't budge that last lug nut (but they do bust one of their own.)  This is a time when a man who never utters a dark oath will

give out with a "Damn!"

A tinker at work.  He said he'll have this
done next Tuesday.
On the other hand, these tinker guys, less staunch in their religion, would pepper their salty language with as many "damns" as there are dried-up artificially-colored pieces of marshmallow in a bowl of Lucky Charms.

Hence, a "tinker's damn" did not mean much, since he damned everything in sight every day.

What's interesting is that, in the late 19th Century, America went through an insane phase of prudish behavior, apparently inspired by Victorian England.  I mean, it was this bad:  the legs on a piano had to be covered by some sort of veil, lest a man see them and think of a woman's legs.

And a woman's legs were not to be seen or even spoken of in those days, which would have severely limited job opportunities for the Stacy Keibler of 1877.

Baltimore's own,
Stacy Keibler
So, in order to keep using the phrase, people invented the expression "a tinker's dam," which was supposed to be the little pan where the tinker melted solder when fixing something metallic.

The only problem was, that little "dam" was a real thing.

They could have said "a tinker's curse," and that would have been all right, except that I would have had to think of something else to write about today.

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