I couldn't care less / I could care less

Discuss word origins and meanings.

I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Archived Topic » Thu Nov 25, 2004 7:29 am

Right now I can't come up with another example of this phenomenon in our language, but this phrase has always bothered me when spoken. The speaker invariably means that he or she could NOT care less about a situation, event, or whatever. How does a phrase or word come to mean the exact opposite of its literal meaning? Sometimes, it appears, that certain words (like "bad", e.g.) are used intentionally to mean the opposite, but this one seems to me to be simply careless thought (or none, altogether) that has led to this phrase. Any ideas on this one?

Tom Turner
Submitted by Thomas Tom (or Turner) (Georgetown, TX - U.S.A.)

Obviously this implies that there is no margin left to care about something, yet the "could" leaves it open for some degree of caring. The phrase should be "I couldn't care less". That's about as annoying as someone constantly using "your" vice "you're" e.g., ...your a nice guy...
Submitted by Joe Mobley (San Diego - U.S.A.)

[h]Posted - 17 Jun 2007 : 00:50:0[/h]Caring and indifference

It is annoying to keep encountering the general misuse of the phrase: couldn't care less. It seems never to be applied in the correct way. Most people just say: I could care less, when they actually want to impart a sarcastic shoulder-shrug of total indifference. "To care less" contradicts the sarcasstic intent, since it in effect says: I care about such and such but I could care less...

BTW, I tried to think of a Hebrew equivalent of this phrase and came up with this: I care (or am interested in) about this issue as much as I care about last year's snow. The assumption being that no one cares about last year's weather. It's one of those things whose bite vanishes completely with the passage of time.

NogaNote
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 7:44 am

I think it is is supposed to be uttered with some irony, as if to imply "...but not much less"
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 7:58 am

Here in the UK, the phrase used is always the literal (and technically correct) "I couldn't care less", so you're quite right. The American version sounds to me as if it may have originated in New York's Jewish community, as an ironic mock-question; "*I* could care less?", based on typical German or Yiddish speech patterns. Once the phrase entered the mainstream, it lost its pungent irony and was simply used at face value, despite meaning exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to. A gramatically similar expression which has become part of American English is "you want I should...?" for "would you like me to...?", used either sincerely or (as was originally intended) facetiously. Unfortunately, these colourful phrases are seldom heard in the UK. I rather like them.
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Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 8:27 am

Thomas, Maybe I COULD CARE LESS, as in ‘I could care less whether she goes to the party or not,’ did derive from carelessness and maybe it didn’t. But in either case it is now accepted as an idiomatic synonym of ‘I couldn’t care less’ with both meaning ‘I am completely indifferent, utterly unconcerned,’ and both considered slang (see OED, Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online, . . .).

And you can’t argue with an idiom and try to invoke logic because by definition an idiom is ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements.’ But this doesn’t mean that everyone likes the expression and there were even those who almost have a coronary when they hear it.

My 1985 Morris Dictionary of Contemporary Usage said:
“It seems to us an ignorant debasement of the language. Members of the Usage Panel [[165 language mavens]] overwhelmingly concur, though a modest percentage tolerate the idiom in casual speech.”
Isaac Asimov, a panel member said,
“I don’t know people stupid enough to say this,”
Another panel member said,
“I don’t like the phrase at all but it is so common you can’t object to it. I just wont use it.”
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My sentiments exactly! And I’m sure that some 20 years later many of those dissenting panelists, who are still alive, have probably mellowed their view after having since seen many such ‘debasements’ far more egregious than this one, pass into accepted usage.

There are two possibilities on the origin of ‘I could care less.’ One is that the “n’t” in “couldn’t” got garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing and the incorrect expression caught on. The other is that the expression is meant to be sarcastic. This type of expression is not unusual in English and there are lots of examples (e.g. 'fat chance' meaning ‘slim chance,’ ‘big deal’ meaning it’s not a big deal – what’s important about that?, ‘tell me about it’ meaning don’t tell me about it – I know, “you can’t be serious” meaning I know you are serious – and I am surprised.
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World Wide Words by Michael Quinion has a very nice discussion, including the history of this expression in his:

I COULD CARE LESS: The form ‘I could care less’ has provoked a vast amount of comment and criticism in the past thirty years or so. Few people have had a kind word for it, and many have been vehemently opposed to it (William and Mary Morris, for example, in the ‘Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage,’ back in 1975, called it “an ignorant debasement of language”, which seems much too powerful a condemnation). Writers are less inclined to abuse it these days, perhaps because Americans have had time to get used to it.

A bit of history first: the original expression, of course, was “I couldn’t care less,” meaning “it is impossible for me to have less interest or concern in this matter, since I am already utterly indifferent”. It is originally British. The first record of it in print I know of is in 1946, as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps, recording his experiences in Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II. By then it had clearly become sufficiently well known that he could rely on its being recognised. It seems to have reached the US some time in the 1950s and to have become popular in the latter part of that decade. The inverted form ‘I could care less’ was coined in the US and is found only there. It may have begun to be used in the early 1960s, though it turns up in a written form only in 1966.

Why it lost its negative has been much discussed. It’s clear that the process is different from the shift in meaning that took place with ‘cheap at half the price.’ In that case, the inversion was due to a mistaken interpretation of its meaning, as has happened, for example, with ‘beg the question.’

In these cases people have tried to apply logic, and it has failed them. Attempts to be logical about ‘I could care less’ also fail. Taken literally, if one could care less, then one must care at least a little, which is obviously the opposite of what is meant. It is so clearly logical nonsense that to condemn it for being so (as some commentators have done) misses the point. The intent is obviously sarcastic—the speaker is really saying, “As if there was something in the world that I care less about”.

However, this doesn’t explain how it came about in the first place. Something caused the negative to vanish even while the original form of the expression was still very much in vogue and available for comparison. Stephen Pinker, in ‘The Language Instinct,’ points out that the pattern of intonation in the two versions is very different.

There’s a close link between the stress pattern of ‘I could care less’ and the kind that appears in certain sarcastic or self-deprecatory phrases that are associated with the Yiddish heritage and (especially) New York Jewish speech. Perhaps the best known is ‘I should be so lucky!,’ in which the real sense is often “I have no hope of being so lucky”, a closely similar stress pattern with the same sarcastic inversion of meaning. There’s no evidence to suggest that ‘I could care less’ came directly from Yiddish, but the similarity is suggestive. There are other American expressions that have a similar sarcastic inversion of apparent sense, such as ‘Tell me about it!,’ which usually means “Don’t tell me about it, because I know all about it already”. These may come from similar sources.

So it’s actually a very interesting linguistic development. But it is still regarded as slangy, and also has some social class stigma attached. And because it is hard to be sarcastic in writing, it loses its force when put on paper and just ends up looking stupid. In such cases, the older form, while still rather colloquial, at least will communicate your meaning — at least to those who really could care less.
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Note: 1) Facts on File Dictionary of Cliches points out that the expression "not only expressed bored indifference but, during World War II, bravado." 2) Eric Partridge points out in his Dictionary of Slang: "however, as Anthony Phelps makes clear in I Couldn't Care Less, 1946, an informal memoir of his WW2 service with the Air Transport Auxiliary, for some speakers, at least, the catch phrase did not imply indifference and irresponsibility, but rather a determination and responsible effort to maintain morale by refusing to be cowed when times were blackest."
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<1946 ‘I COULDN’T CARE LESS’(title) by A. Phelps>

<1947 “The COULDN’T-CARE-LESS boys, the chaps who imagined that now that the war was over there was no need for further effort.”—‘Red Danube’ by B. Marshall, vi. page 53>

<1947 “If I suggest that it should be good because the book was by a top-line author she simply COULDN’T CARE LESS.”—‘People,’ 22 June, page 2/4>

<1966 “My husband is a lethargic, indecisive guy who drifts along from day to day. If a bill doesn't get paid HE COULD CARE LESS.”—‘Seattle Post-Intelligencer,’ 1 November, page 21/2>

<1973 “A few crusty-souled Republican senators who COULD CARE LESS about symbolic rewards.”—‘Washington Post,’ 5 January, page B1/1>

<1978 “‘I hate sneaking past your servants in the morning.’ ‘They know, anyway. They COULD CARE LESS. Thornton mistreats them horribly.’”—‘Mortal Friends’ by J. Carroll, III. iii. page 281>

<1994 "The American people COULD CARE LESS who's White House Chief of Staff."—George Will on 'This Week With David Brinkley'>>
(Oxford English Dictionary, Word Court by Wallraff, Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Random House Unabridged Dictionary)
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Ken G – September 11, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 8:41 am

What would we do if ever we lose Ken
Reply from dale hileman (Apple Valley, CA - U.S.A.)
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 8:56 am

It's beyond our ... er
Reply from Edwin Ashworth (Oldham - England)
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Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 9:10 am

Dale .. all dob in a few bob and take out a subscription to the OED on-line and other various on-line resources ??
WoZ of Aus. 14/09/04
Reply from Wizard of Oz (Newcastle - Australia)
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Post by Archived Reply » Thu Nov 25, 2004 9:25 am

Wiz, And if we ever lose you, we can just go out and buy a few comic books! (<:)

Ken – September 13, 2004

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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by dalehileman » Sun Jun 11, 2006 3:29 pm

What do you call an expression of this sort

Or does it not have a name
Thanks guys
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Jun 11, 2006 8:23 pm

Surely it's an irony Dale
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Bob in Wales

I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by dalehileman » Mon Jun 12, 2006 12:15 am

Bob: Thank you but somehow I can't help thinking there's a more precise term

How about antiphrasis
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by gdwdwrkr » Mon Jun 12, 2006 12:50 am

I neither could nor couldn't care less.
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Jun 12, 2006 4:46 am

ANTIPHRASIS looks to me like it works. And IRONY is also seems good, but since irony comes in two flavors IRONICAL ANTONYMY may be a bit more specific. Of course, what an expression is called in a particular instance would seem to depend on the intent of the speaker and the use of the above terms assumes, for example, that the user of I COULD CARE LESS is not just saying it out of ignorance.

(Words About Words by Grambs)
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Ken G - June 11, 2006
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I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by tony h » Mon Jun 12, 2006 2:28 pm

We seem to have a local corruption to the meaning of "I could care less" in that it does not mean "I couldn't care less" but does mean what it says.
As in : "Do you know what Mrs Fergal was doing last Saturday morning?" "No. And you know what I could care less, but about what I am not sure maybe campaigning to standardise the number of grains of sand in an egg-timer."

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I'm puzzled therefore I think.

I couldn't care less / I could care less

Post by trolley » Sun Jan 28, 2007 8:00 pm

"Could/couldn't care less" is used interchangeably around here. The split seems to be around 50-50. The explanation I was given was not mentioned in this thread. I'm not surprised. I was talking about this with two friends, both of whom "could" while I "couldn't". The first fella explained. "It's sarcasm. I say I could, but I really can't". Well, that didn't quite wash. My other friend was much more creative. Although I found it impossible to care less than not at all,he,apparently, had some magical ability that allowed him to express his degree of caring in a negative. In fact,he trumps my "0" with his "-5". "What? I don't care at all. How could I possibly care less?" He smiled. " You know what? I don't care either. I can even care less than that if I choose to,but it's not worth the effort. That's how little I care"
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