Can I make a #@&%# confession? For years I thought that tinker's dam was just that – tinker's damn, the folkloric shorthand for anything worthless. But turns out I was wrong. Or potentially wrong. It's hard to tell.

Traditionally the pot-menders were the original potty-mouths, letting f-bombs adorn their handiwork. And if you swear too often, a damn here, a Gadzooks there, then your invectives are sure to lose their sizzle. Their worth. Call me gullible, but that's how I'd always grounded the expression.

Illustration: Simon Letch

Yet a second theory declares that argument a pile of #%$@. Fixing cookware all day, a tinker melted tin to seal any cracks, his intervention stopgap in both senses. While a client's saucepan might be salvaged, the same vessel would lose its resale value, verging on worthless owing to the tinker's dam. See? No n – just dam.

Dictionary detective Michael Quinion takes the conjecture further, adding bread to the tinker's crack. Allegedly, to create a working surface, the artisan jammed a ball of dough into the pothole, soldering his tin above a freshly baked bung. As the heat rose, the dam would subside, so leaving metal on metal.

Damn is dam therefore, asserts Theory 2. But what about tinker's cuss, you ask, the sister phrase? Surely a cuss is a curse is a damn, and all this talk of makeshift bricolage and edible plugs is a furphy. Maybe, but history has a habit of subverting phrases. Ask the Unabomber.


Last week I binge-watched Manhunt, the Netflix docudrama based on the search for Ted Kaczynski, the postal bomber who terrorised America 30 years ago. The case is notable for the role of forensic linguistics. Thanks to a published manifesto, a treatise seeking to justify the bombings, FBI agents had access to the suspect's words, thousands of them: a grammar geek's version of fingerprints.

System, power and people listed among Kaczynski's pet words. No smoking guns there, not compared to the writer's Anglophilia, where a strong bias for UK spellings prevailed, the felon wilfully (sic) ditching American defaults for analyse, catalogue and industrialisation. Yet the insight into Kaczynski's mindset related to cake.

If tinkers used bread to fill the breach then I can live with dam. If tinkers swore like stevedores then I'm fine with damn as well. But in the end I need to pick one version over another. As the saying goes, you can't eat your cake and have it too.

Verbatim, that's the idiom the Unabomber favoured, an arsy-versy rendering of the more popular expression: to have your cake and eat it too. The crim erred. Or so FBI agents presumed, until lead investigator James Fitzgerald traced the phrase back to antiquity, discovering the manifesto preference was the original syntax. Evidently the homicidal maniac was a pedant.

Or at least a stickler for untainted expressions, despite the weight of contrary usage by the growing majority of speakers. Most of us have tinkered with the words, lending the phrase more bite, a sweeter prosody, having our cake and eating it, but not Kaczynski. A SWOT team was led to his Montana shack by the crumbs of his finicality.

So if you think you can remain anon in cyberspace, or issue malicious notes with impunity, then you have another thing coming – a phrase which actually began as having another THINK coming, but I'm not falling for that puritanical lure. Not me. We give social media enough DNA without adding telltale fossils to our glossary. Or use the correct saying. Have another think if you like. Eat your @&%# cake. See if I give a tinker's proverbial.
Twitter @dontattempt

See if I give a tinker's proverbial.

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