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by Abigail Van Buren

Tinker's Trade Survives Only in Childhood Verse

This is in reply to "Desperate in Ohio," whose aunt used to recite a saying, but she could not remember the ending. My mother frequently quoted the verse to me when I was a child and wanted something. It went:

"If wishes were horses and beggars could ride,

"If turnips were watches, I'd wear one by my side.

"If 'ifs' and 'ands' were pots and pans,

"There would be no work for tinkers."


DEAR NEVILLE: Thank you for rushing to the rescue -- as did thousands of other gallant readers. That question evoked some fascinating responses. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Perhaps this is an appropriate time to educate those readers who were born after the 1930s. A tinker was a craftsman who navigated city streets and country roads in a horse-drawn cart, offering his services to mend pots and pans -- repairing broken handles, smoothing dents and, especially, repairing small holes.

The latter involved fashioning a moist clay dam around the hole; then as he blocked its interior with a thick pad of leather (or asbestos!), he would pour a small amount of solder into the dam. The solder cooled almost immediately, and the tinker would brush away the now worthless dam.

It was that elementary act that gave our language the expression, "It's not worth a tinker's dam," or more simply, "It's not worth a dam," or even (Clark Gable to the contrary), "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a dam!"

And all these years we thought we were swearing. -- GORDON D. ROWE, CHAGRIN FALLS, OHIO

DEAR GORDON: Far be it from me to tinker with your explanation. Thank you for the etymology lesson. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: My thanks to you for reviving a long quiescent memory: Greenwich, London, England, 1935-1938. Two children excited by the sounds of the horse-drawn milk wagon coming down the street, the gypsy calls for "rags and bones, rags and bones," black coal tumbling noisily down the chute into the basement, and the tinker in his cart coming to solder damaged kitchenware.

When the tinker came we chanted the old saw, "Were 'ifs' and 'ans' pots and pans, there'd be no need for tinkers," but we always had something for him to mend -- a hot cup of tea for him, and a sugar cube for his pony. "An," we learned, is an archaic synonym for "if," a word we would meet again only in literature. -- PATRICIA L. WILLY, ALAMO, CALIF.

DEAR PATRICIA: What a wonderful description. I can almost picture the scene from your childhood. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: It appears to be an old Irish proverb -- a tinker is an Irish gypsy, and they still roam Ireland today. My mother is from Kildare, and I remember as a child seeing all the "tinker" children riding bareback on ponies by the side of the road. I was jealous of their life, since their parents didn't make them go to school. -- LIL-ANNE SCHUETTE, BOSTON

DEAR LIL-ANNE: Irish? Several other readers thought the saying originated with the Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish. However, I'm sure more than one ethnic group has paraphrased those sentiments at one time or another. (I'll have more on this tomorrow.)