Sunday, July 17, 2016

I could(n't) care less

This one is sure to cause some teeth gnashing in certain sectors of the Confessions of Ignorance readership, but it's pleasing as punch to me. I am among that portion of the population that has been known to say," I could care less." I then brace myself for the usual response, which is that this is the wrong way to say it and doesn't make any sense. Up till now, I've acknowledged the rightness of my opponents, while continuing to use the expression. But all that is about to change, my friends.

The reason for this is that somehow in the last week, I came across an interesting post on this very subject at in their previously unknown to me section called Word Fact. Here they explain that the expression "I couldn't care less" popped up in British English at the beginning of the twentieth century, but that the variant "I could care less" took root in America in the 1960s. They then go on to point out that the fastidious among us find the American version to be logically flawed. Obviously, if you could care less, then you care more than you might. Here's comedian David Mitchell's rant on the topic. 


Nevertheless, the aberrant expression persists. Word Fact goes on to say that some etymologists have attempted to explain it like this:

“I could care less” emerged as a sarcastic variant employing Yiddish humor. They point to the different intonations used in saying “I couldn’t care less” versus “I could care less.” The latter mirrors the intonation of the sarcastic Yiddish-English phrase “I should be so lucky!” where the verb is stressed.

But  Word Fact isn't having any of it. It goes on to present my real defense:

The argument of logic falls apart when you consider the fact that both these phrases are idioms. In English, along with other languages, idioms are not required to follow logic, and to point out the lack of logic in one idiom and not all idioms is…illogical.

Which bring us to question, what is an idiom? The Online Etymology Dictionary is very good on this. It tells us that the  word entered English in the 1580s and meant a form of speech peculiar to a people or place. It took until the 1620s for it to have our more current meaning of a phrase or expression peculiar to a language. Coming to English through the typical French route, it goes back to the late Latin idioma, which meant "a peculiarity in language", to the Greek idioma.  Fowler, of Fowler's Modern English usage, has this to say: "A manifestation of the peculiar" is "the closest possible translation of the Greek word". The root idios we know from words like "idiosyncratic" and means "particular to oneself".

And from the same entry, another quote Fowler:

[G]rammar & idiom are independent categories; being applicable to the same material, they sometimes agree & sometimes disagree about particular specimens of it; the most can be said is that what is idiomatic is far more often grammatical than ungrammatical, but that is worth saying, because grammar & idiom are sometimes treated as incompatibles

I rest my case.

(The signage at the top I found on Jenz Grammer Tips. I think you can guess which side she weighs in on.)



  1. I'd always assumed that "could care less" was rooted in sarcasm (though I suspect that accords too much credit people who use that particular idiom. So I've never liked "could care less," but I can understand it and won't rail against it.

  2. Well, since I suspected you would be one of its main critics, I may be in for some smoother saillng than I thought.

    I think of either variant as being close cousins in meaning to "Whatever," which is also meant to shut down dissent, and don't much like that tone, even though I have used it.

    I do like thinking about idioms as a non-logical alternative route through language, though.

  3. The best Jewish joke I know that uses the sarcastic shift of emphasis that gives "could care less" the logic it enjoys runs this:

    One day Stalin gets up in front of a crowd and says:

    “I have here a telegram from Leon Trotsky in exile: `You were right. I was wrong. I should apologize.’”

    A little Jewish carter gets up and says, “Excuse me, Comrade Stalin. You read the words right, but you had the intonation, the expression all wrong.”

    Stalin tells the crowd: “A comrade, a humble Jewish carter, tells me I did not read Comrade Trotsky’s telegram right. Come, Comrade Humble Jewish carter, you read the telegram.”

    The humble Jewish carter steps to the podium, takes the telegram, and reads: “You were right??? I was wrong? I should apologize?”

  4. No, I have no quarrel with "could care less" because it makes sense, even it people who use it don't know why.

  5. Or maybe the last should be: "I should apologize???"

  6. I think either one works, Peter. Good joke.

    I'm not sure that I can explain why "I could care less" works myself, but it makes sense to my brain.

  7. "...which is also meant to shut down dissent."

    I'd be interested in what you had to say should you ever decide to take on "mansplain."

  8. I've only ever heard mansplain used by a woman after a conversation with a certain type of man, so it isn't quite in the same category.

  9. Personally, I've always thought that both variants are capable of making perfect sense, and of expressing certain things clearly. The problem is, they do not express the same thing clearly, but tend to be used as if they do. "I could care less" would make perfect sense to me if someone was trying to convey a sort of casual disinterest, as in, "I don't care much, but I could care less." So my objection is strictly to the use of "I could care less" as if it meant "I couldn't care less".

  10. Interesting, Jeff. As the times I remember saying it, I think I've probably said it with a certain amount of venom, I am not sure I would be saying it correctly from your perspective. However, if I ever get called on it, I'll use your reasoning as a defense.

  11. As a card-carrying Life Member of the Spelling Police and Grammar Nazis I am honour bound to respond ...

    It's irritating that nobody seems certain who first stated the blindingly obvious fact that England and America are "two countries separated by a common language". GB Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Churchill are "the usual suspects" but it seems to be a verdict of "case not proven" - or should that REALLY be "case not proved"? In this, as in other matters, many people "couldn't care less ..." - which brings me back to the phrase which gave rise to this discussion thread!

    Cards on the table. I must be some sort of Masochist, because I really, truly ENJOY Proofreading and Editing. I've performed this task for friends (and occasionally for paying 'clients'!) on BOTH sides of The Pond many times, and never had any complaints: I can only assume I must be doing SOMETHING right! :)

    Seana, as I type I can still see your last post on my screen, and your final word "defense" is one of my bugbears: why change the spelling of an established term ("defence") for something else ("defense") purely FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE?

    Back to the maligned phrase. My thoughts run as follows.
    "I couldn't care less" Linguists and Scientists will agree, Two Negatives make One Positive. 'Not ... less' IS a Double Negative: therefore, I COULD care MORE is the Literal Meaning of the phrase (my thanks to David Mitchell, who has clearly obtained regal permission to make this point ...). HOWEVER, [cave canem]: there is an unstated but heavily IMPLIED codicil, to the effect that if I say this I am suggesting that I know I OUGHT to care more, but I am not prepared to make the effort ...

    "I could care less" is [my opinion] a WEAKER variant, a (much fainter) hint that "yes, I suppose I COULD care less if I really try, but it's really not worth the effort ..."

    I love debating points of Grammar/Syntax/Spelling etc - it's one of the thngs which keeps the English language alive, growing, constantly "updating" on BOTH sides of The Pond - and creates work for people like me!

    Vive la Difference (comme on dit ...)

  12. Hi Paul--am I right in thinking we were both visiting Audrey's chatroom on her prompt evening the other evening?

    At any rate, I appreciate your weighing in here. It sounds like you are in the camp that sees some logic in the American variation without particularly liking it. I am in the somewhat different position of feeling liberated by the idea that an idiom doesn't have to make logical sense. It only has to communicate its meaning to others that have already been given its sense. It's not an arbitrary decision to say something wrong, at least after the first person says it. it's a received way of saying something and doesn't really fall into categories of right or wrong.

    Don't get me wrong--I have great admiration for the precision of copy editors and proof readers. I was just happy to come on an article that helped me understand why, even after people corrected me and I had to bow to their superior logic, it still felt better to say it the way I had been saying it.

    As for defense/defence, well,according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, defense actually came first. Defence was a variant spelling following the same tendency as hence, pence and dunce. I don't think such changes are usually just for the sake of it, but follow associative paths. Personally, I don't mind that there are two spellings for a word, and in fact I think it would be very hard to keep words from changing over time.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment.