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A tinker was originally an itinerant tinsmith, who mended household utensils.
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 Gypsies adopted this lifestyle and the name was particularly associated with indigenous Irish and Scottish Highland 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 "little tinker" is now widely used in the UK as a term of endearment for a cheeky young child. Some modern day nomads with an Irish, Scottish, 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 an Irish or Romany connection.
The tinker's dam is a temporary repair patch. Commonly at-hand items such as a wad of wet paper or other pliable material was used to temporarily block or dam a hole in a metal vessel undergoing repair by a tinker using molten solder. Consequently, after the more permanent solder repair has solidified, the "tinker's dam" is superfluous and may be discarded.
According to the Practical Dictionary of Mechanics of 1877, Edward Knight puts forward 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".
A tinker's dam was more commonly a barrier of mud or clay built up around a hole in a pot or a pan to dam the passage of molten solder. The solder was then poured into the vessel, its flow was dammed and subsequently solidified against the temporary dam, which was then simply brushed away. The remaining permanent solder repair would then be rasped and smoothed down by the tinker.
This may have influenced the British phrase tinker's damn, which is an expression of contempt. The phrase "a tinker's damn" or "a tinker's cuss", may also be applied to something considered insignificant. A common expression may be the example: "I don't give a tinker's damn what the Vicar thinks", or sometimes shortened to, "I don't give a tinker's about the Vicar." In this context, the speaker is expressing contempt for the local clergyman and his opinion. A tinker's cuss or curse was considered of little significance because tinkers were reputed to swear (curse) habitually.