I Could Care Less

Ladies and Gentlemen, another crossover from my writing blog (Save the Semicolon):

From all the language pet peeves that I hear about, the phrase “I could care less” seems to peeve people the most. Well, let’s say it’s tied with “irregardless.”

Taken on its own, of course, if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, I could care less,” he’d be implying that he cares something about poor Scarlett. That his level of Scarlett Caring has exceeded zero.

But, also of course, we know that he meant that he doesn’t care at all. He couldn’t, in fact, care less.

So this is illogical and it drives people bananas.

Then again, other people argue that there’s an implied “but not very much” to be added to the end. Or that the phrase is intended solely as irony.

Personally, I’m not buying it. I think that people use it unthinkingly, just as they say, “head over heels” or “have your cake and eat it too” without really knowing where it came from or how it means what it means.

In any case, it’s here to stay, it doesn’t confuse anyone, and I think we need to collectively get over it. I don’t use it, but it’s time to stop cringing when other people do.

It was 50 years ago….

In October, 1960, “I could care less” made its first printed appearance, apparently only 11 years after its more respectable cousin. And its first printed appearance was an attack, with a writer asking Anne Landers to adjudicate its legitimacy. She said she couldn’t care less whether it was legitimate.

The Boston Globe has an article musing over how “couldn’t care less” seems to continue to bug people. Why do people go nuts over this phrase, but give a pass to other usages, like new meanings for “bemuse” and “aggravate” (both words that I’ve written about before)?

Why do some phrases feel like sand in the underwear for decades, while others become accepted almost overnight?

It can’t be because of logic. We have many illogical, but accepted, idioms in our language. So what is it?

See:

Boston Globe: “I could care less”

My post on “bemuse” and “presume”

My post on “aggravate”

9 Responses to I Could Care Less

  1. BruceS October 28, 2010 at 10:05 am #

    I would argue that your graph is misleading. The values for “Could Care Less” go all the way from very little caring to full level of potential caring, and there needs to be an indicator of the range of potential caring. For instance, I could care less about whether my oatmeal is “steel cut” (but not a lot less), so that would have a low level of caring and a small range. I could also care less about Joe Satriani’s music. That would have a medium level of caring and a somewhat wider range. I could also care less about my family. I don’t know if I’m capable of caring a lot less about them, as caring about them is so much a part of me, but I’m sure I could care a *little* less. In that case, my level of caring is high, but my range of potential caring is probably pretty small. Using similar logic, “couldn’t care less” doesn’t really mean that you don’t care about something, but rather that your level of caring is at the bottom of its range. An addict may not be able to care less about his drug.
    Hmm…maybe my range of caring for steel cut oatmeal is bigger than I thought, and if I made a good effort, I could care a *lot* about it. I just don’t care enough about caring about it to make that effort.

    • Kevin October 28, 2010 at 10:48 am #

      If you want your oatmeal in less than 10 minutes, you will begin to care more about whether or not it is steel cut. Now, I think you have very clearly demonstrated that both of these idioms are insufficient to describe that “caring” is a matter of bounds and ranges, so I will immediately cease using either. Could you please quickly formulate a new idiom for me that accurately captures what you have described above? I’d prefer 3 to 5 words, if at all possible.

      • BruceS October 28, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

        When I’m in a hurry, I eat “instant” oatmeal, considered obscene by oatmeal enthusiasts. When not in a hurry, I just follow the instructions on whatever oatmeal package I happen to have. If it takes >:10, I’m sure I can find something to do in the meantime.

        “I don’t care.” (intent of both idioms)
        “I don’t care much.” (oatmeal)
        “I’m interested but not obsessed.” (Satriani)
        “I’m obsessed.” (Rush on oxy)

        FWIW, I generally just say “I don’t care” instead of “I couldn’t care less” or the various colorful “I don’t give a {insert object here}”. I would say “I don’t give a dam”, but people would hear it as “damn”, and that would just get the whole vulgarity war going again. No need to tinker with a perfectly adequate expression.

  2. Kevin October 28, 2010 at 10:09 am #

    I just think people that use the phrase “I could care less” aren’t putting their best foot forward.

    • Kevin October 28, 2010 at 8:23 pm #

      Man, that was my best shot. I got nothing.

      • admin October 28, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

        I’ve been in class all day (and some of the night). Just getting scraps of time here and there to reply. But I promise that I picked up what you lay down.

        • Kevin October 29, 2010 at 11:00 am #

          Thank you. Validation is very important to me. Did you notice my hair, too? How about these jeans?

  3. admin October 28, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Bruce, I think that people using the phrase aren’t usually referring to things that they care much about.

    • BruceS October 28, 2010 at 5:06 pm #

      I agree, but people who argue against the “could” version are usually trying to use logic, which doesn’t really work on the “couldn’t” version either.

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