Q: I hate it when people say to me, “It’s the least I can do.” I know what they mean, but the implication is that they’ll do the least they can for me. I always point out that I’m more interested in the most they can do for me. It’s a funny old English-speaking world.
A: We interpret the familiar idiom “It’s the least I can do” more generously than you do.
People who say this are suggesting that they’d be willing to do even more if you were to ask. They don’t mean “I’ll do the least I can and no more.”
But there’s another side to this coin. Someone who responds with “It’s the least you can do” isn’t being magnanimous. He means he has a right to expect more!
Enough about the psychology of “the least I can do.” We’re on firmer ground discussing the history of this expression and ones like it.
The word “least” is Germanic in origin. It was first recorded in writing about the year 950 as an adjective, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
It’s a superlative form of “little,” and is defined in the OED as “little beyond all others in size or degree; smallest; slightest.” Although “least” once meant “fewest” as well, that sense of the word has died out.
This OED citation, from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768), nicely illustrates the use of “least” as an adjective: “A fix’d star of the least magnitude.”
Two other good adjectival example are the phrases “line of least resistance” (1746) and “path of least resistance” (1896).
“Least” has also been used as an adverb since around 1300.
This adverbial example is from the philosopher George Berkeley’s Alciphron (1732): “Alciphron has made discoveries where I least expected it.”
But “least” has another important function. Since the 12th century it’s been used as a “quasi-noun,” the OED says.
This is the “least” that we find in expressions like “to say the least,” “at least” (or “at the very least”), “not in the least,” “last but not least,” “that’s the least of it,” “least said, soonest mended,” and the usage you’re concerned with—“the least I can do.”
That last one, and versions that vary with the subject or pronoun used (“the least you/he/she/they can do”), go back to the early 17th century—at least.
The OED has only one example (from the 20th century), but we’ve found many going as far back as the 1600s and we wouldn’t be surprised if there are even older ones.
This one is from a 17th-century volume, The Annals of King James and King Charles the First: 1612-1642 (the quotation is from a speech that James delivered before the House of Lords in 1621):
“And since I cannot yet retribute by a General Pardon (which hath by form been usually reserved to the End of a Parliament) the least I can do (which I can forbear no longer) is to do something in present, for the Ease and Good of my People.”
Here are a few more examples:
1677: “Certainly the least you can do is to wait upon his pleasure for them.” (From John Flavel’s Divine Conduct and Saint Indeed.)
1680: “The least he can do is to be mistrustful of his Judgment, and of the quality of his Understanding.” (From a collection of Jansenist treatises called Moral Essays.)
1694: “And truly this is the least you can do if you would be grateful.” (From Samuel Slater’s An Earnest Call to Family-Religion.)
1695: “You have taken care of Honour, and ’tis the least I can do to take care of Conscience.” (From William Congreve’s comedy Love for Love.)
And that’s not the least of it. The usage became even more ubiquitous in the centuries to come.
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