COULD CARE LESS.

Jan Freeman is another consistently excellent writer I should link to more often; her column on “could(n’t) care less” is so compendious that I will never have to address the issue myself. Her conclusion is exemplary: “Last month in Reader’s Digest, this month in the Simmons College Voice, all over the Web, sober professionals and spelling-impaired amateurs continue to insist that ‘I could care less’ really must mean ‘I care to some extent.’ But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.” And along the way she has a delightful overview of the peeves of our forefathers:

Among the peeves of 100 years ago, there are plenty of short-lived scandals, nits nobody has picked since the Treaty of Versailles. Usagists once scorned ovation (for “applause”) because the word “really” meant a minor Roman triumph. Dirt was supposed to mean “filth,” not good clean soil. Reliable was called a “monstrous” coinage, practitioner “a vulgar intruder.” But none of these rulings had much effect.
In our time, bemused has quietly shifted its sense from “befuddled” to something like “wryly or quizzically amused.” Apparently everyone finds it more useful in its new role, because objections (though they have been recorded) are relatively rare. The transition from “was graduated from college” (once the proper form) to “graduated from,” in the 19th century, met little resistance, and the 20th-century move to the simpler “graduated college” is well underway.
Other peeves just won’t die. Aggravate was aggravating Latin-minded usage writers in the 1860s, and you still hear from people who think it should mean only “make worse,” not “annoy.” Other issues nearing the 150-year mark are the propriety of “there’s two more,” the use of decimate to mean “destroy,” and the debate between “taller than I” and “taller than me.” Compared to these hardy perennials, “could care less” is a mere sprout.

You think the language is going to hell in a handbasket? Me, I could care less.


Apropos of nothing, I have to pass on a quote I found at wood s lot:
“What have you done with all your words & gaudy language hats?” –Lara Glenum

Comments

  1. Jan is unsurpassed for sensible writing about language peeves. Her blog deserves a more sophisticated and less peevish readership than it sometimes gets. (I sound peevish, don’t I?)

  2. I sort of love the title of the Reader’s Digest column Ms. Freeman links.

  3. A-and in the Simmons College Voice essay she links, check out the final paragraph, which opens “But they also know that I am not a prescriptionist, telling the rest of the world what is right and wrong.” and closes, “They sound wrong to me, they make me cringe, and I try to convey to my students what the correct phrases are.”

  4. My only problem with people using “could care less” is that they must be doing it out of either ignorance or defiance.

  5. Prescriptionist, would that be a doctor or a pharmacist?

  6. My only problem with people using “could care less” is that they must be doing it out of either ignorance or defiance.
    That’s absurd. It is now at least as common as the phrase you prefer, and the vast majority of the people who use it do so because that is the phrase they know; it is as much a part of their dialect as any other phrase. Why is it “ignorance” to use a phrase that is well established in the language?

  7. I am always informed and compliant.

  8. @The Modesto Kid: That’s interesting. I guess it means that “prescriptivist” (or at least “prescriptionist”) has become one of those dirty words like “racist”: you can still say and believe all the same prescriptivist things you used to, but now you have to preface them with “I’m not a prescriptivist, but …”

  9. “I could care less” is mostly American usage, as Jan Freeman says, and I think of it as an abbreviated phrase missing some implied words, or a shrug, ie: “[as if] I could care less” (or even “I could care less [if I put my mind to it but I really can't be arsed]“).
    I hadn’t noticed that ‘bemused has quietly shifted its sense from “befuddled” to something like “wryly or quizzically amused”’, at least in Blighty. I’d say it is “wryly or quizzically confused or ever-so-mildly surprised” (as opposed to actually confused or befuddled witless by drink or seriously startled). I don’t think you have to be amused to be bemused, or indeed that it helps.

  10. Charles Perry says:

    My impression is that “I could care less” was originally sarcastic irony (like, “Yeah, you’re real smart”) but with time the irony evaporated and only sarcasm remained.

  11. And now the sarcasm has largely evaporated, and it’s just a more emphatic way of saying “I don’t care.” At least it is for me.

  12. I really don’t give a ***’* *** whether people say it that way or the “logical” way.

  13. In order to help ground the discussion in a little (quick and dirty) evidence, I just did a search on the Corpus of American Contemporary English (COCA) , a resource freely available to everyone with access to the internet by the way.
    Here’s what I found. From 1990 to 2010 there were 319 instances of couldn’t care less , 22 instances of could not care less and 215 instances of could care less.
    I added the couldn’t care less and could not care less together to get 341 instances. Here is the breakdown by source: Spoken (41); Fiction (122); Magazine (80); Newspaper (83); Academic (15) and here is the breakdown by time period: 1990-1994 (80); 1995-1999 (77); 2000-2004 (91); 2005-2010 (93)
    For could care less here is the breakdown by source: Spoken (62); Fiction (54); Magazine (31); Newspaper (58); Academic (10) and here is the breakdown by time period: 1990-1994 (52); 1995-1999 (43); 2000-2004 (57); 2005-2010 (63)
    So it seems that the two forms are indeed both common (approximately equal but perhaps closer to 3:2 in favour of couldn’t care less overall). The ratio is highest for Fiction and Magazine sources (well over 2:1), but reverses for spoken sources to 3:2 in favour of could care less.

  14. I am always informed and compliant.
    Good for you, Jim. Some of us still hold to the view that it’s important to make the effort.

  15. Is “I could care less” a universal usage, or is it, as someone pointed out, mostly American? Since I don’t live in an English-speaking environment, I don’t think I’ve heard this usage in real life (although I’ve heard and read of it), and “I could care less” still suggests to me its literal meaning — not out of prescriptivism but simply because that’s what it means to me!

  16. In other words, I appear to be a linguistic relic. :)

  17. I just searched COCA for couldn’t care more. I didn’t expect to find many (or any) but there were 2 instances. Interestingly both contained a contrasting could/couldn’t care less and there was one of each!
    2002, CNN “Next”: “….The general population out here could care less probably. O’BRIEN (voice-over): Mike Potter couldn’t care more. He is a retired airline caption [sic] who now specializes in aviation geriatrics.”
    May, 1996 edition of “Outdoor Life” magazine in an article “Top guns ’96″: “There are droves of hunters, after all, who couldn’t care less about the traditions of black-powder hunting but who couldn’t care more about getting in on the special black-powder-only deer seasons.”
    Even though “couldn’t care more” is much less frequent then “couldn’t care less”, I wonder if there is any reason it couldn’t similarly morph into “could care more” at some point in the future?
    I can’t think of any other I couldn’t X less constructions, but what about I couldn’t be less X e.g. could I couldn’t be less happy possibly be replaced by I could be less happy ?
    By the way, I am an Australian English speaker and I don’t think I have ever heard could care less used here as an alternative to couldn’t care less, but I will keep an ear out for it from now on.

  18. That will now be my standard phrase. Staring someone in the eye, in my poker-faced drawl I will intone: “I could care more.”

  19. It does seem to be an American usage.

  20. From the UK, I would agree that it is basically an American usage, though through cultural osmosis, it is creeping in here a little. Jan Freeman is basically writing for an (East Coast) US audience, I presume, while LH is very happily most international. So prescriptivist or not, there will be honest differences here.

  21. The otherwise great David Mitchell falls on the wrong side of this argument:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw

  22. I am an Australian English speaker and I don’t think I have ever heard could care less used here as an alternative to couldn’t care less
    Same here, in my parts of Australia. Except that I have heard it from Americans, of course. (It grates terribly for us! Sorry.)

  23. “Could care less” and the attendant joke about it really meaning “couldn’t care less” was trite 40 years ago and it’s still trite. For a while it was replaced in Chicago with “Tell someone who cares,” but even that is pretty rude. There are more diplomatic ways to make the same point, but if you find yourself making the point so often, eventually you have to ask yourself why you’re hanging out with people you find so uninteresting.

  24. Yes it does grate. It’s awful! I do care (I could care more, though, although I’m glad I don’t).

  25. I’m with Narmitaj in that, in the UK, I’m pretty sure if you used “bemused” to mean “wryly amused”, people would be … bemused.
    I don’t understand why many strain at “could care less” when they happily accept the equally illogical but equally idiomatic “wouldn’t you say?” (and similar) when what is meant, logically, is “would you say?” (and similar). Wouldn’t you agree?

  26. Couldn’t you care less?

  27. I wouldn’t agree, no.

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