[Note: A more complete discussion of this subject, updated in 2021, can be found in a later post.]
Q: One of the most annoying of misused phases is “I COULD care less” when the meaning is really “I COULDN’T care less.” If I could, I’d outlaw it. Comment please?
A: The idiomatic expression “I couldn’t care less” means “I’m completely uninterested” or “I’m utterly indifferent.” It first appeared in print in 1946 as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps about his experiences ferrying British aircraft during World War II, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The expression has been used on both sides of the Atlantic since then.
A shortened version, “I could care less,” has been gaining popularity in the since the 1960s. It has the same meaning as the original expression but without the negative. The OED’s first published reference comes from an article in the Seattle-Post Intelligencer in 1966.
Although many people are disturbed by the abbreviated idiom, it doesn’t bother us. It may be intended ironically. The message, perhaps, is “I don’t even distinguish this by identifying it as the thing I care least about.”
You might be interested in reading what the M.I.T. linguist Steven Pinker says on the subject of “I could care less,” which he calls “an alleged atrocity” and a favorite target of language mavens.
As he points out in his book The Language Instinct (p. 377), the melodies and stresses in “I couldn’t care less” and “I could care less” are very different, and 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.