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The word is attested from the 13th century as "tyckner" or "tinkler", a term used in medieval Scotland and England for a metal worker. Some travelling groups and Romani people adopted this lifestyle and the name was particularly associated with indigenous Scottish Highland Travellers and Irish Travellers. However, this usage is disputed and considered offensive by some. Tinkering is therefore the process of adapting, meddling or adjusting something in the course of making repairs or improvements, a process also known as bricolage.
The term "tinker", in British English, may refer to a mischievous child. Some modern-day nomads with a Scottish, Irish or English influence call themselves "techno-tinkers" or "technogypsies" and are found to possess a revival of sorts of the romantic view of the tinker's lifestyle. The family name "Tinker" is of Anglo-Saxon origin and does not have a Scottish, Irish, or Romany connection.
A tinker's dam is a temporary patch to repair a hole in a metal vessel such as a pot or a pan. It was used by tinkers and was usually made of mud or clay, or sometimes other materials at hand, such as wet paper. The material was built up around the outside of the hole, so as to plug it. Molten solder was then poured on the inside of the hole. The solder cooled and solidified against the dam and bonded with the metal wall. The dam was then brushed away. The remaining solder was then rasped and smoothed down by the tinker.
In the Practical Dictionary of Mechanics of 1877, Edward Knight gives this definition: "Tinker's-dam: a wall of dough raised around a place which a plumber desires to flood with a coat of solder. The material can be but once used; being consequently thrown away as worthless".
The common use of "tinker's dam" may have influenced the English phrase tinker's curse, which expresses contempt. The phrases tinker's damn and tinker's curse may also be applied to something considered insignificant. A common expression may be the examples: "I don't give a tinker's curse what the Vicar thinks", sometimes shortened to, "I don't give a tinker's about the Vicar." In this context, the speaker is expressing contempt for the clergyman and his opinion. A tinker's curse or cuss was considered of little significance because tinkers (who worked with their hands near hot metal) were reputed to swear (curse) habitually.
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- "A Tinker's dam". usingenglish.com.
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- Martin, Gary. "Tinker's Dam". The Phrase Finder.
- Media related to Tinkers at Wikimedia Commons