Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Gives A Dam?

A trouble-making reader of this blog has stirred things up by sending along his thoughts about “giving a damn.”  He suggests that when Clark Gable said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” he was really saying “I don’t give a dam.” A dam is a former Indian coin, worth perhaps 1/40th of a rupee (or even less, by some accounts), and, therefore, not worth a great deal. 

Linguists are at odds about this. One early example of the phrase is in 1849 by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who wrote “How they settle the matter I care not, as the Duke wrote, one twopenny damn.”  As Macaulay’s biograper, G. O. Trevelyan, maintains, the Duke in question was the Duke of Wellington, who had spent time in India, and the “damn” should have been rendered “dam,” referring to the coin.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says such a supposition “has no basis in fact.”  It cites Oliver Goldsmith’s “I care not three damns what figure I may cut” in 1760—well before Wellington’s time in India and, in fact, prior to his very existence.   The OED suggests “damn” is derived from the Middle English phrase “not worth a kerse [curse].”

A similar dispute occurs with the phrase "tinker's damn." One school of thought says it should be a tinker's "dam"--referring, not to an Indian coin, but to a temporary clay or mud reinforcement that was used in the repair of pots and pans to hold solder in place while it solidified, and was then discarded. Most etymologists, however, believe that this was just a Victorian attempt to bowdlerize the phrase "tinker's damn"--derived from "tinker's curse," which can be cited as early as 1824.

As you might expect, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou gives neither a damn nor a dam about any of this, such discussion being far too much exertion for his Barleycorn-benumbed brain.  The following represents the highest level of mental activity of which he is capable.

                  The Duke of Wellington wrote Macaulay,
                        “I do not care a dam.”
                        But his writing was so scrawly,
                        It was a cryptogram.

                        Macaulay said to Wellington,
                        “You might as well just scram,
                        The way I read your spelling, son,
                        You do not care a damn.”

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