Q: How did “I could care less” (US) and “I couldn’t care less” (UK) come to mean the same thing? Is the American version a shortened form of something like “See if I could care less”? (I’m an emeritus professor of education at a British university.)
A: “I could care less,” which we’ve written about before on our blog, is an extremely common idiom in the US—almost a cliché—even though many Americans strenuously deplore it.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes “could care less” as a US colloquialism that means the same thing as “couldn’t care less” but omits the negative element.
The OED’s earliest citation for its use in print is from a 1966 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “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.”
We’ve found several older examples, however, dating back to the early 1960s. They indicate that “could care less” was widespread, both geographically and sociologically, in the US.
This quotation, for instance, is from a November 1962 issue of Ebony magazine:
“Only the bourgeoisie are overwhelmingly obsessed to meet, rub shoulders and party with white society. The large mass of ‘Negroes’ (whatever that is) could care less.” (The quotation is found in a letter to the editor from a reader in Chicago.)
Here’s another example, from a 1960 issue of the Sourdough Crock, published by the California Folklore Society:
“Dear Uncle Flabby: I get sick and tired of hearing people say, ‘I could care less,’ which doesn’t mean what they mean to mean at all. If they would only stop and think about it, they would know that what they are trying to say is, ‘I couldn’t care less,’ which means ‘I don’t care at all.’ ” (The comment was in a column written by the pseudonymous Flabby Van Boring.)
But here we’d like to speculate a bit, if you don’t mind.
This common American phrase—essentially “couldn’t care less” without the negative element—might have grown from an earlier usage in which the negation comes before the phrase. This earlier usage appears in both British and American writing.
Here’s an example from a 1955 issue of Dun’s Review and Modern Industry, published in New York: “Hardly anyone in the executive latitudes knows anything much about office operations and, with minor exceptions, none could care less.”
And here’s a British example, from a 1955 issue of The Aeroplane: “Why does he assume that passengers will not like fixed backward seats? I don’t believe they could care less, if properly handled.” It’s from a letter to the editor, written by a reader in Croydon, Surrey.
Finally, this 1951 example from the British author John Seymour’s The Hard Way to India:
“The miners knew that their safety depended upon themselves, and themselves alone—nobody else could care less if they did not put enough timber in, or failed to examine a face for misfire—so they took good care to care themselves.”
In our opinion, it’s not much of a jump from “nobody could care less” to “they could care less.”
It’s worth pointing out that the phrase “couldn’t care less” originated with a British writer. As we noted in our original blog posting, it first appeared in the title of a book, I Couldn’t Care Less (1946), by the English air transport pilot Anthony Phelps.
You could be on to something when you speculate that “I could care less” may be a shortened form of something like “See if I could care less.”
As we say in our earlier posting, the abbreviated American idiom is obviously intended ironically. The message is something along the lines of “I don’t even distinguish this by clearly identifying it as the thing I care least about in the world.”
The linguist Steven Pinker points out in his book The Language Instinct that the melodies and stresses in “I couldn’t care less” and “I could care less” are very different.
Pinker suggests that the positive version indicates youthful sarcasm:
“By making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, ‘Oh yeah, as if there was something in the world that I care less about.’ ”
All things considered, we see nothing wrong with using “I could care less” as long as the user is aware that many sticklers still view it as an atrocity—or, as Pinker puts it, “an alleged atrocity.”
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