What is an Irish Tinker? What is a Tinkers Dam? Old Terms and the roots of Irish Racism.
The Tinkers were a poor people... without horses, lands or homes which the English held so dear. They plied their trade of mending pots, pans and other needful things from farmhouse to farm house... town to town in an endless search for the work which would provide meals for the family...
In truth Tinkers were usually quite adept and mending many more things than just pots and pans. In some cases they were like traveling blacksmiths capable of fixing whatever needed to be mended.
"From the roofs on top, to the gates out front, and just about anything that is broken in between."
"If a tinker can't mend something.. then throw it away because it can't be fixed!"
If a tinker did not know how fix something... then he usually figured it out very fast...
A look at the history and setting this term came from.
The history of the term "Not worth a tinkers dam" or "Not worth a tinkers Damn" may be traced back to England to around the time of 1450 AD....and since it is so old in its origin, it has had plenty of time to settle in...
It is so commonly used in some parts of the world that I doubt people give it a second thought when they say it.
"Not worth a tinker's dam!!!"
They simply mean that the thing they are talking about is completely without any monetary value and devoid of practical use.
This Contribution from Carol Wainwright to the "Using English" forum is interesting...
but sadly only covers a small part of the true meaning of this phrase.
Idiom Definitions for: 'Not worth a tinker's dam'
This means that something is worthless and dates back to when someone would travel around the countryside repairing things such as a kitchen pot with a hole in it. He was called a 'tinker'. His dam was used to stop the flow of soldering material being used to close the hole. Of course his 'trade' is passé, thus his dam is worth nothing.
Her definition of Dam comes from other writers on the subject who were also merely speculating at the possible intention of the phrase.
This phrase is in fact very old... it Originated in Great Britain sometime between 1300 and 1650 AD when we see its first use in print...
Since this phrase originated while "The Tinker trade" was still very much in common practice and since the Trade was not actually "Passe' " at the time the phrase was coined... Then we must conclude that the Dam in question must have meant something quite different from what Ms. Wainwright and others have commonly thought.
In that time and culture (Early England) people came in several strata of importance from the Royalty and other well to do and rich at the top... to the household servants... and on down to the outcasts and street ruffians... and after that, the halt and lame who were in the streets and alleys waiting to die.
Remember that this was also the time period in which the Tortures and Hanging of Criminals was considered like Entertainment for the people.
It was a time of Great Cruelty from the Crown of the King... to the Feet of the peasants. There was no great fondness to be found for people outside of your own family in that time. The people were very callous.
Who were the Tinkers?
Tinkers were travelers... From Ireland.
A land that had been Conquered and exploited. Its people had been sorely abused for centuries. Their lands had been taken.. There Children pressed into Military service. They had been set aside... Pushed away...
Since they did not own their own lands they were therefore forced to forage wherever the winds blew if they wanted to stay alive.
It seems that the Irish Tinkers probably found little welcome while traveling through the countryside of the Britain's looking for work. From house to house they would go, and at each turn would either be "hired" (on occasion), or more likely as not, they would be turned away with shouts and threats. Now mind you that this was not even done by someone of importance, like the man or lady of the house... but rather, they were turned away by the houses lowest Servants.
Servants could have a great amount of pride in their station... "At least they were not VAGRANTS who dug in the rubbish for old pots and pans to mend... and sell... Right"??
So it follows that the Servants would elevate their own status at the expense of those who happened to be less fortunate.
Now that we know what or who a Tinker was... lets look at the words "Damn", and "Dam".
Usually when a person makes the statement "Not worth a tinkers DAM", they are using it in the most derogatory way they know how... and usually say it while thinking of the word "DAMN" (a curse word).
I went searching for the history of this statement and opinions vary... Some men say that a "tinkers dam" refers to the building up of clay around the place where molten metal will be poured... in the sweating of Pipes or the mending of Pans... and this might certainly be a true use for some isolated purposes... but this hardly explains the use of this statement in its derogatory form... as an insult.. So lets not settle for such a simplistic view.. let us dig a little deeper.
The word Damn is a curse word... this is true... but the sentence does not make sense when the word Damn is at its close.
The word Dam on the other hand, when used to express the type of a Dam that holds back a liquid...(see below (Dam n.1) ) like an earthen dam however does not express any real derogatory intent... It is just a simple part of the process or method that would not even be considered by the people cursing the Tinker.
If they were truly cursing the job the tinker had done.. then the term would have been different... It would have been "Not worth a Tinkers mend" . Referring to a poor patch that did not properly fix the pan. Who cares about a little bit of clay that is used in the process if your insult is about shoddy workmanship and a pan that is still broke? So this definition of the word "dam" does not fit the intention of the phrase either.
Lets dig a little further into the etymology of the word Dam itself. (taken from the online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=dam
"water barrier," early 14c., probably from O.N. dammr or M.Du. dam, both from P.Gmc. *dammaz (cf. O.Fris. damm, Ger. Damm), of unknown origin. As a verb from late 15c. Related: Dammed; damming.
"animal mother," c.1300, variant of dame (q.v.), also originally used, like that word, for "lady, mother;" but meanings diverged into separate spellings by 16c.
An Example of the second of these definitions would be:
"The Mare is that foals Dam" (The female horse is the mother of that colt.)
I am of Irish descent... Black Irish in several senses of the word.. Dark Hair, Blue eyes and defiantly Non-Catholic. A Bible Believer through and through for as many generations back as our elders could recall.
In my own life now looking back I see some of the traits of those men called Tinkers... While the world looked down on them for their travels, and poverty... I see only their determination for survival and their work ethics in providing for their families.
Comparing my own "Trade history" to that of the life of a tinker..
The typical tinker was sharp witted and able to do many tasks. From the mending of Pots and Pans from which they were acclaimed... to the mending of most anything else that they happened to come across. From items done at the request of a paying customer.. to items found in the rubbish and fixed in the hope or selling to the next house.
Other Trades that were commonly purformed by tinkers might well be some basic Blacksmithing, Plumbing, Carpentry, Brick-masonry, and the list goes on and on.. Wherever the poor traveling tinker found himself or his family hungry... He worked at whatever Job presented itself. Anything to put food on the table or that could be traded for a blanket when the weather was cold and wet..
"The clanging of a pan at the gate, called forth the servant at the kitchens door... "No we don' need any pans mended today.. But can you fix a loose tile on the floor?"
"Why Yes I can.. thank ye' kindly mam... jus' show me to the work and fret no more."
My lifelong work history and the knowledge it has brought is amazing thing to me when I look back on it...
In my early years I started my first career at age 8 with the delivering of newspapers door to door... by 12 I had started mowing neighbors lawns and doing Landscaping... If that was not enough.. I was involved in various forms of Scouting and Explorer work... In high school I got another job at a large Home Improvement Store; where other skills and knowledge was readily ingested and filed away for future use.
All of this work continued continued simultaneously until I joined the Military.
The Military was tough. I was infantry.
But in some cases the infantry was like a long camp-out that lasted several years... I got some rest while in the military. In between Road Marches, Drills and other training maneuvers.
I also found some work in my company office as Clerk typist and worked around the barracks as a Repair and Utility Specialist... In my other spare time I worked in town doing landscaping at a house on the edge of a golf course... I even spent some spare time in the evenings working at a restaurant. "Idle Hands is the Devils Workshop".
After Military service I wanted to work in the Financial business... Spent almost a year working for one of Wall street's Companies and Left that employment because of the Corruption I witnessed first hand. I thought my parents were going to be upset with me when I left that job..
I was surprised when I got home that day.. I sat down with my dad and told him what all I had witnessed... what the Boss ordered me to do... the ultimatum he gave me... Regarding the order to sell Junk investments to widows and elders... "Sell it or your Fired" were pretty simple terms to digest... and my Response???
I Just shook my head.. looked him in the eye and as the fire burned in my bosom I said: "I wont sell this garbage to my clients.. I quit."
My dad just nodded... asked me what I wanted to do next... asked me where I was headed... I did not know yet.. But I started working again right away... Mowing Lawns, doing Landscape.. and soon found myself working in maintenance for a local Pesticide Company... Later got my State Licenses and worked in that trade (several companies) for about 6-8 years.
I worked in Sales at one of the companies.. reached #18 in the Companies sales crew of over 1000 Sales Reps.. But got tired of sitting behind a desk pushing the telephone when I could make more out on the lawns... in the sunshine...
I have welded, worked in construction with wood, metal and concrete. Owned a Farm, Tended Livestock, and even bought and sold lands and houses. Driven trucks and used tractor equipment, owned my own businesses.
While Raising a family I have found it necessary to do pretty much whatever work has been passed my way... and its been this way for most of my life...
When I look back at the Tinkers... consider their lives... I feel a sort of kinship to them that can't be shrugged away. If I find myself to be a modern day "Tinker" Then my own mother would be one example of a "Tinkers Dam"... a woman who grew up from farm to farm... taught school and worked at crafts to help support our family in a time when the unions were on strike and my dad could only find a little work here and there...
I consider also that my own Wife would also be considered a "Tinkers Dam" and consider how hard this woman has always worked while standing at my side... raising our Children.
In my eyes... there is nothing more noble... than a person who is at the bottom of society in monetary Values... But at the Top of the list in Family Values, Work Ethics and their sense of Morality which includes Kindness and Love for other people.
Not worth a Tinkers dam...
Let us now Consider the use of the word dam as defined in (Dam n.2) above...
Lets try substituting the word "Mare" in the sentence and see what happens.
To fit the intention of the phrase; the horse would have to be old, lame and without productive use. To say something is "Not Worth a Tinkers Mare" could then mean that a tinkers old horse is ready for the Glue factory...
It would follow that it certainly could not be bred or give birth to a colt... as a horse capable of producing offspring would have some value in its young.
Now its very bad to talk about a poor mans horse in this respect... But did Tinkers have horses? From what I gather of history.. Horses were were the possessions of people who had enough wealth to feed them... and pastures to keep them.
While it may be true that occasionally a tinker may have acquired a horse from somewhere... I see no implication that this should be common enough to warrant the idiom we are speaking of. If a horse was able to travel and pull a cart.. then it had value.
Now lets look at Dam n.2 from a different direction and see what other implications could be derived from it.
The word Dam in this sense meaning a Female went on to become Dama, Madame, Ma'am and eventually Mom.
So I am sad to deduce that the original intent of this racial slur was nothing more... and nothing less than to say that something... or someone was "Not worth the Mother (or Wife) of a tinker".
This horrible Slur was to call the mother (or wife) of a tinker... Useless... trash...
Inspirational Poem about an Irish Tinker
- Poem of Patric O' Kelley (Gaelic style poetry)
If you enjoy Poetry, History and Rhyme you can find some inspiration here and it won't even cost a dime.