Archive for May 7th, 2012

Are the Rich Worth a Damn or a Daam?

May 7, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

 

On the cover of the New York Times Magazine this weekend was a question, printed in large type: ‘Are the Rich Worth a Damn?’

What does ‘damn’ mean here? The question is clearly not about which circle of hell the rich should be sent to (that would be a bridge too far for the NYT): it’s more a way of asking: ‘what are the rich worth?’ and it invokes familiar English usages like: ‘I don’t care a twopenny damn.’

This oath has an interesting history: it is said to have been invented by the Duke of Wellington, aka Arthur Wellesley. And what did the Duke mean when he used the phrase ‘twopenny damn’? Surely he could not have meant ‘twopenny curse’ (as the word’s dictionary meaning would imply)? That would contradict the sense of what the Duke was trying to say: for to curse is to care deeply, while he was obviously trying to say that he cared less than he would for something worth a trivial sum, like two pennies. Or, for that matter, a fig – ‘I don’t care a fig’ was also a common expression once (imagine this on the cover of the NYT magazine: ‘Are the Rich Worth a Fig?’).

What then was thing, worth less than a fig, that the Duke was referring to?

As a young man Arthur Wellesley spent many years in India and was well-versed in military Hindustani. At the siege of Srirangapatnam, in the thick of battle he dashed off a note: ‘when you get possession of the nullah you have the tope.’¶ Wellesley would certainly have  been familiar with an Indian coin called the daam. Introduced by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century, its value was negligible – it was perhaps comparable to today’s paisa which is worth about 1/5000th of a US dollar. It probably looked something like this§:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1803 was the year Maj.-Gen. Arthur Wellesley defeated a Maratha alliance at Assaye: he would later describe this as his greatest accomplishment. 1803 was also the year in which an article in one of Calcutta’s English journals said: ‘This word [daam] was perhaps in use even among our forefathers and may innocently account for the expression ‘not worth a fig’, or a dam, especially if we recollect that ba-dam, an almond, is to-day current in some parts of India as small money.’

Another low-value coin was the damri. Burnett and Yule, in their dictionary, Hobson-Jobson (from which the above example is also taken) write: ‘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, as in Scotland we have heard, “I won’t give a plack,” though certainly the speaker could not have stated the value of that ancient coin. 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!” i.e. in other words, “I don’t care a brass farthing!”’

Or, as people might say in India (in many languages): ‘I don’t care two-pice!’ Could this have been at the back of the Iron Duke’s mind when he coined his famous expression?

Common sense suggests that the original reference was to a very small unit of currency rather than to hellfire. But of course in Hindi and Urdu ‘daam’ is also the word most commonly used to mean ‘price’. This suggests the intriguing possibility that the New York Times may unwittingly have posed a different question: ‘Are the Rich Worth Their Daam?’ To ask whether the rich are worth their price is not the same as asking what they are worth.

Britain’s wars in India left a trail of tiny booby-traps in the English language. Something similar could be happening in today’s Iraq.

 

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¶ Weller, Jac: Wellington in India, Greenhill Books, London, 1993, p. 63.

§ Gupta, Parmeshwari Lal: Coins, National Book Trust, New Delhi 2006, pl. XXVI.

 



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