Peter Kormos on the Tinker’s Damn (er, Tinker’s Dam)

Peter Kormos is the NDP member for Niagara Centre in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. He’s also former Minister of Consumer Affairs in the ill-fated Ontario NDP government.

Earlier today, my cerebral friend Gary called into question my use of the phrase “tinker’s damn” in this morning’s post about bootleggers. I pointed here to justify my use and spelling. Gary’s research suggested I was on the wrong track.

Surely there could be no greater authority on this matter than the selfsame Peter Kormos, who, on June 12, 2001, make the following statement in the Legislature (recorded in full in this Hansard):

I used the phrase yesterday in my discourse from my position here in the House. I explained the etymology of “tinker’s dam,” which is spelled d-a-m. I’ll repeat the etymology of the phrase “tinker’s dam” — I know you’ll be interested — because I might, as a matter of fact I’m confident, I’ll use that phrase this evening.
In days gone by, tinkers went around from village to village repairing pots. They were tin pots. The pots were worn through. You got holes in the pots. There’s a hole in the bucket. The tinker literally built a dam of wet bread around the hole. When he poured the molten tin to fill the hole, the wet bread acted as a dam around the hole so that the tin wouldn’t spread across the whole base of the pot. The phrases “tinker’s dam” and “not worth a tinker’s dam” speak to the rather less than best quality of those tinkers who would use but bread for that dam when the molten tin was poured in to fill the hole. So “not worth a tinker’s dam” and “to not give a tinker’s dam,” as the tinker didn’t when he was soldering or retinning that pot, means to care little — t-i-n-k-e-r-‘-s d-a-m, as in Hoover Dam.

I’m convinced: it’s dam, not damn. Gary and Peter are right.


Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 24, 2004 - 00:54 Permalink…

gives several instances of “tinker’s cuss” and “tinker’s damn” in the newspapers and cites “Tinker’s Dam” only once as the name of a band

Oliver B's picture
Oliver B on March 24, 2004 - 01:08 Permalink

I’m inclined to go with the American Heritage Dictionary over the transcribed remark of someone from the bloviating class..

Lauren's picture
Lauren on March 11, 2005 - 22:57 Permalink

Regarding the meaning of the term “tinkers dam”, the explanation I was given by my father when I first heard it years ago, was that the tinkers dam was something that was thrown away, useless…therefore, not worth a tinkers dam means just that…not worth anything..makes sense to me.

DerekMac's picture
DerekMac on March 13, 2005 - 13:57 Permalink says “The origin of the phrase is most likely the simplest explanation. Tinkers had a reputation for cursing, and a tinker’s damn was not worth much because tinkers damned everything.”

They say that the spelling “tinker’s dam” has only been used since 1877, but “tinker’s dam” has been used since 1839, and “tinker’s curse” has been used since 1824.

They also quote the Oxford English Dictionary as dismissing the “piece of bread to fix the pot” story as “baseless conjecture”.

DerekMac's picture
DerekMac on March 13, 2005 - 14:00 Permalink

Typo: should say that “tinker’s dam” has been used only since 1877, while “tinker’s damn” (with an n) has been used since 1839.

John Litchfield's picture
John Litchfield on July 22, 2005 - 04:21 Permalink

It was explained to me that a tinker’s cuss was the depression that was made in the ground for tinker to knock out the dents in pot and pans. The cuss was only useful while the tinker was working. Once he had finished is was just a depression in grounf and therefore worthless.

Brad Morris's picture
Brad Morris on December 9, 2006 - 21:57 Permalink

A tinker was a craftsman who made objects out of tin, such as coffee cups, pots, pans etc. In making or repairing these items by soldering, it was sometimes necessary to build a dam of a “worthless material, such as sand, or flour and water, (allowing it to harden). The dam held the solder in place for just a few seconds until it hardened, not allowing it to flow away. Thus, a tinkers dam was not worth much of anything.