Tinker's dam

Posted by James Briggs on January 12, 2002

In Reply to: tinker's dam posted by Jim on January 12, 2002

: : I've heard that a tinker's dam is a small amount of some kind of paste that the tinker places around the hole or crack in the pewter. The dam serves to keep the solder in one place until the solder can fill the hole or crack. After the operation, the dam useless and is thrown away.

: tinker n. A traveling mender of metal household utensils
: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

: Two explanations from 2107 Curious Word Origins, Sayings & Expressions from White Elephants to Song Dance by Charles Earl Funk.

: 1: In Knight's Dictionary of Mechanics we find the interesting explanation that a tinker, having a hole or the like to solder, erects a small barrier or dam of clay about the area so that his molten solder will not flow off. The clay, once its usefulness is past, in thrown aside.

: 2: ...tinkers, mostly itinerant, were a knavish, drunken and blasphemous professional class, during the reigns of the Yorks, Tudors and Stuarts. Blasphemy was their most characteristic failing and "damn" was probably the most frequent and most abused word in their vocabulary. From their mouths it (damn) became meaningless. Hence, to say, "I don't give a tinker's damn," merely adds a little intensive force to one's indifference....

If someone doesn't give a tinker's dam (or cuss) the they are reckoned to be completely indifferent to the outcome of an event. Dam (note the lack of a terminal "n") is used today to describe a structure for holding back water; so it was in the days of Tinkers. They used to travel the country earning their livings mending pots and pans and sharpening knives. They would mend the pots by filling the leak on the inside with some clay and then repairing the outside with permanent material. When this was done the clay was discarded. The clay stopper was the tinker's dam. The dam was also known as a cuss. Both were worthless, hence the saying.