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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.

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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

dam (n.1)

"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.

dam (n.2)

"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


MrMaranatha (author) from Somewhere in the third world. on November 04, 2013:

Red Elf..... I just want to make clear that I Rejected the official definition of that term... After reading Many definitions from many sources... including Oxford, Cambridge, Noah Webster 1828 and others... However... Because these definitions come centuries after the first usage of the term. I favor the word Dam from Dama meaning Mother (or spouse) because of three important reasons. 1) the literal clay dam that was used on the pot did not make a difference in the metal itself and would only be a tool of the tinker himself and his process. (I know this process of workmanship) 2) Calling his Clay Dam (earthen Dam) worthless is hardly much of an insult and rather strange when you stop to think of it. and as I covered above... if it were the mend itself being called into question then the term would have been worded differently... IE "Not worth a tinkers Mend".. The Clay Dam has nothing to do with the quality of metal or workmanship) Last but certainly not least.... 3) When tempers flare it makes far more sense in terms of Humanity.. (or lack there of) to call a persons Parentage or matrimonial ties into question.

Thanks for stopping by... we will probably always disagree on this one... I rejected the Clay Dam definition several years ago when I first read that woman's account on it.... that is when I started searching for the proper definition... Having found Dama... and the fact that it Pre-Dates the other definitions by several hundred years... the other definition no longer has any foundation to me.

RedElf from Canada on November 03, 2013:

I love the hub but do not think much of your first source's definition. It shows very poor research on the part of its author. I have found MANY sites online that purport to have "the goods" but tend to be poorly researched.

Cambridge or Oxford English Dictionary (not American, sorry), and some of the traditional British reference books are much more accurate sources for research, though as an Irish descendant, it pains me to admit it.

I applaud you digging deeper to find the info.

First, let me say I absolutely agree with you and your lesson on racism against both the Irish and the lower classes (quite common at the time, and still alive and well in some minds).

I also applaud your treatise on the value of womanhood and mothers.

Your definitions of "dam" are also quite correct, but you have missed the common usage of term.

My family came from Ireland, and we are well-familiar with the term "not worth a tinker's dam." and, yes, the common usage of term is still racist, not matter how you slice it.

A dam was used to stop a leak in a pot or vessel. To have a pot or vessel mended by the village blacksmith would be expensive; work done by the travelling tinker would be cheaper. The dam or leak-stopper used by a tinker (who was looked down upon as inferior and often supposed to be a thief given the chance) would often be of inferior metal. Some times the tinker's work was most satisfactory. Sometimes the workmanship was inferior.

Some would say this inferior material was because that's all the tinker could afford to use; some would say the inferior material or poor workmanship was on purpose so the tinker could get payment for mending the pot again on his next trip through the town. Either way the tinker would still be cheaper than the blacksmith, so who was cheating whom?

So the term "not worth a tinker's dam" though loaded with centuries of racism and class-bigotry simply means "materials or workmanship of gravely inferior quality" or "worthless."

I suppose in the end it doesn't really matter, as you have covered every possible angle of the term and its usage - must be the school teacher coming out in me :) Thanks for a thought-provoking read.

Love the hub - your passion humanity, your outrage at bigotry, and your care for your fellow travelers shines clearly in every word.

MrMaranatha on April 02, 2013:

Just so that you know... in spite of some similarities in Lifestyle between the Tinkers and Gypsies (Romani) they are actually two distinctly different groups.. The Tinkers were displaced Irish. The actual Gypsies were Romani immigrants that came out of Northern India about 500 AD and then migrated into the various parts of Europe. They are often called by each others names due to the similarities in their nomadic Lifestyle... IE "Irish Gypsies" or "Gypsie Tinker". But when you look at them for their other beliefs.. Tinkers were mostly Christians... Protestants that is or "Black Irish". But the Gypsies or Romani are followers of Hindu. This can be confusing to people as the Romani practice "Adaptation" and will outwardly adopt the religious culture of the nation or location they are in and the people they are among. Oddly enough I just noticed also that allot of this Religious Ethnic history seems to be Vanishing from the books... it is being deleted and edited out of Wikipedia and other places as fast as i can locate it. I come back in a month and the whole articles have changed and the Religion and beliefs sections are missing. They do not bother hiding things regarding Muslims or Hindus much.. but Christianity is under a gross censorship in the world media right now.. not on the surface but certainly in places like Wikipedia and Various Social Medias... It believe this has to do with a conflict between the people who own or maintain such sites and what they believe... and Christianity. They are showing that they have a distaste for Christianity and would like to personally wipe it out of history... and in fact they are doing so bit by bit online.

Nell Rose from England on April 01, 2013:

lol! thats okay, it was fascinating to read about their origins, its always puzzled me as over here we have a program called Big Fat Gyspy Weddings, and they always have travellers on it, as my ex partner said the Romanys are the gypsies, so at least this shows that really they both are, thanks, hope you had a great Easter, nell

MrMaranatha (author) from Somewhere in the third world. on March 30, 2013:

I hope I did not convey some sort of Universal Persecution here... as I know that that has not been the case.. certainly there have been times of feast as well as famine. Since I was writing about the Origins of the Term we are particularly looking at the time period in the AD 1300-1450 era And... Sadly the terms for these people followed them through history and even to the new world where they may have hoped to have started afresh. Many of them did of course... Some of their Children rose to the highest levels of society... (And coached Football like John Madden) Others sank to new unheard of Lows... such is life.

Thanks for coming in for a look see Nell...

Nell Rose from England on March 29, 2013:

Hi, fascinating look at Tinkers, I have met many of them as I was married to a romany gypsy. I often wondered how they started on the road. I will pull you up about one thing, hope you don't mind, English people were not always nasty to them, I remember my family talking years ago about how through the last few hundred years many lived near us, and my family and many others were friends with them, of course they were wary, but we did give them a chance, the Crown may have been evil, but the real English never have been, nell

MrMaranatha (author) from Somewhere in the third world. on October 01, 2012:

Knowledge of other peoples Plight... and compassion for others... can and will overcome all barriers presented... in Love.

Michele Travis from U.S.A. Ohio on October 01, 2012:

Thank you for writing this hub. It has taught me a lot. History is so interesting, and we never learn enough of it. Discrimination must have been so hard for them, to feed their families, I am so sorry it happened to them. But, you have shown us that as a society, we can continue to grow and leave our past behind us.

Voted up!

MrMaranatha (author) from Somewhere in the third world. on September 28, 2012:

Thanks Moonfroth..

I have had a thing for reference books... I have collected my share of them especially in the area of Biblical or Religious Studies. I have found though that these days (with failing eyesight) the internet is so much faster and easier for me to find what I am looking for... I did however find the site: interesting to wander through... among others...

Clark Cook from Vancouver ara, British Columbia, Canada on September 28, 2012:

MrM --

Reallly enjoyed this. Very thorough research. You write well. You might want to pick up a copy of the microscopic (it actually comes with a magnifying glass!) facsimile edition of the OED, perhaps the ultimate etymological research tool. Given your talent for this kind of work, I think you'd really enjoy this 2-vol. boxed set. It was published ages ago, but I often see it in used bookstores.

MrMaranatha (author) from Somewhere in the third world. on September 28, 2012:

Not that they would not have found many uses for Duct tape... if they had it.. But the tinkers were first off Metalworkers... smiths... and could also be called the "Jacks of all trades". Today that term is also sort of derogatory... "Jack of all trades but master of none" tends to point at a person who can't hold down a good job... This comes from a society that has trained in the mindset of staying in the same trade and working toward Journeyman status and retirement. Or when working for an employer, for an employee to stay in the employers shop until retirement... All of this as apposed to working for the sake of feeding your family and doing whatever it takes to survive.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on September 27, 2012:

That was interesting. I always thought from what I read in old stories, being a tinker would be an interesting and fun job. Partly because the only way I know how to fix things is with duct tape!

MrMaranatha (author) from Somewhere in the third world. on September 27, 2012:

Thanks Billybuc... I really like investigating old mysteries of history like this one... It was a fun rabbit to chase down.

Joy56 if you would like to read the whole article.. and make an actual comment that has some sense to it... I will be happy to talk with you about it.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 27, 2012:

Interesting history lesson my friend; great job of research.

Joy56 on September 27, 2012:

I am English living in Ireland, i am really sick of hearing about everything going wrong in Ireland is the fault of the Irish...... It is boring.

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