12 July 2012

A possible etymology for "give a dam(n)"

Take the entry for the Indian word dam. The dictionary defines it as: "Originally an actual copper coin. Damri is a common enough expression for the infinitesimal in coin, and one has often heard a Briton in India say: 'No, I won't give a dumree!' with but a vague notion what a damri meant."

That is the etymology of dam. But Yule and Burnell have more to say.

"And this leads to the suggestion that a like expression, often heard from coarse talkers in England as well as in India, originated in the latter country, and that whatever profanity there may be in the animus, there is none in the etymology, when such an one blurts out 'I don't care a dam!' in other words, 'I don't care a brass farthing!'"
From an article at the BBC discussing English words which originated in India.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmmm...."Damn" has a generally accepted etymology - from multiple romance languages it has a common root that means "to inflict harm upon". So "Damn you to hell" has a straight forward meaning that predates modern english.
    Additionally, the general formulation for “I couldn’t care less” seems to predate any awareness of Indian currency units in England. The close formulations "I don't give a copper/brass farthing” existed at that time. And non-monetary formulations were in common use: “I shan’t say please or thank you”, “…nary a prayer” – there are likely better and older examples that someone better read can offer. I vaguely recall that Shakespeare included curse word slang that would directly equate to our “I don’t give a shit/fuck”.
    Without documentation that shows “damri” mutated into “damn”, it seems much more reasonable to assume that the common formula was applied with the words “Damn” and “Damri”, just as it was also used with many other words denoting either things of value or offensive acts.


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