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
“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.”
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.
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.
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."
<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
Ken G – September 11, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)