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More about caring less

[Note: This post was updated on March 19, 2021.]

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—almost a cliché—even though many English speakers strenuously deplore it. And it wasn’t first recorded in the US, as we’ll show later.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “could care less” as a US colloquialism dating from the 1960s that means the same thing as “couldn’t care less” but omits the negative element. However, earlier examples have been spotted in Canadian and Australian newspapers of the 1940s.

The earliest example reported so far is from an article published in the Ottawa Evening Citizen, July 20, 1948:

“The idea is that because their frost comes earlier (if it does) the Gatineau goers are a more rugged, tougher breed than people who stick around in Ottawa. I could care less!” (Sightings were reported in separate, nearly simultaneous postings to the ADS-L, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, by Ben Zimmer and Garson O’Toole on March 9, 2021.)

And your hosts at Grammarphobia found several examples in a letter written in February 1949 in Australia. Here are some excerpts from the letter, which was read in divorce court testimony in Perth:

“I did love you with all the passion and love that is possible of a man (if you can call me a man in your idea) and now I could care less.”  … “But at the present time I could care less.” … “I don’t care how you take it, I could care less.” … “I’m writing how I feel and I could car [sic] less. Goodnight Zoe and goodbye if you wish it—I could care less.” (The Mirror, Perth, June 28, 1952.)

The news article examines a case tried in 1950 in which a woman who lived near Melbourne and taught English was granted a divorce on grounds of desertion. The February 1949 letter, which her husband wrote after he’d left her, was entered into evidence.

In the 1950s and ’60s, published uses of “could care less” became more common. Here are two from the mid-’50s:

“He received the most indifferent treatment which a government department can hand out. He hasn’t heard from the department since. Apparently they could care less.” (The Chilliwack Progress, Chilliwack, B.C,  Jan. 6, 1954; the finding was first reported by Mark Liberman on the Language Log.)

“The National League clubs have always shied from pitching left-handers against the Dodgers, but Casey Stengel could care less about the Dodgers’ reputation for beating southpaws.” (The Washington Post, Sep. 25, 1955; the sighting was first reported by Ben Zimmer.)

This example, which we found in a 1960 issue of the Sourdough Crock, published by the California Folklore Society, shows just how familiar “could care less” had become by then:

“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 appears in a column by the pseudonymous Flabby Van Boring.)

Here’s another California sighting from the same year: “People who ordinarily could care less about a symphony orchestra have been known to see him [Leonard Bernstein], if only out of curiosity. While they are there, they are exposed to music at its best.” (An article about a New York Philharmonic concert in San Diego, published in the Coronado Eagle and Journal, Sept. 8, 1960.)

The OED’s earliest citation 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 quoted so many earlier examples only to show that “could care less” was more widespread, both geographically and sociologically, than has been assumed.

But here we’d like to speculate a bit about its origins, if you don’t mind.

This common idiomatic phrase—amounting to a negative statement without a negative element—might have grown from an earlier usage in which the negation comes before the phrase. This earlier usage, which is quite literal, appears in both British and American writing.

In this mid-19th-century example, for instance, the negative “few” appears before the “could care less” part: “Few men in the diocese could care less who are the lucky recipients of Church gifts.” From an article in The Times by “S. G. O.” (the Rev. Lord Sydney Godolphin Osborne), London, July 30, 1862.

And in this American example, the negation is implied by an “if” used conditionally: “As to profits, if our farmers could care less for the comforts of themselves and their families … they could now with their present facilities, no doubt double their incomes.” From a letter by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, published in The Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, Vt.), July 18, 1889, and widely reprinted.

Later examples are plentiful: “no man could care less” (1900); “few could care less” (1915); “no one could care less” (1917); “nobody could care less” (1925); “neither of them could care less” (1954); “I don’t believe they could care less” (1955), and so on.

Perhaps it’s not much of a jump from “nobody could care less” to “they could care less.” Just a thought. 

As for the fuller version of the phrase, “couldn’t (or could not) care less,” it apparently dates from the early 1940s.

The earliest example we know of was also found by the intrepid Ben Zimmer. It’s from a story, “The Coup of Mr. Marsland Faille,” by Marcel Wallenstein, printed in the Kansas City Star, Jan. 25, 1942:

“ ‘Why, Mr. Pennington, I think you’re funny.’ ‘I mean it. You see, I’ve lost.’ ‘Have you?’ she said, and poured herself another drink. ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘I couldn’t care less,’ responded Miss Mond lightly.”

The usage, both contracted and uncontracted, began showing up with great frequency in the later 1940s, in both the US and the UK.

The OED’s earliest example for either formcontracted or notis the title of a book, I Couldn’t Care Less (1946), by the English air transport pilot Anthony Phelps. We found one from the same year in an American newspaper: “the mayor’s campaign fund to preserve the G. O. P. in city hall is being given the bird by a number of city employees who couldn’t care less.” (The Indianapolis Times, March 21, 1946.)

You aren’t alone in suggesting that “I could care less” may be a shortened  form of something like “See if I could care less.” The usage has been discussed to death by academic linguists, and theories abound.

Some have analyzed the abbreviated idiom as deliberately ironic or sarcastic. Yet others disagree, pointing out that even if it did begin sarcastically, it’s certainly not sarcastic anymore.

And as the linguist Arika Okrent has written, the “could care less” / “couldn’t care less” partnership isn’t unique. Think of “you know squat” (which really means “you don’t know squat”),  and “that’ll teach you to mess with me” (meaning “that’ll teach you not to mess with me”).

Whatever its origins, we see nothing wrong with using “I could care less” as long as the user is aware that many fussbudgets still view it as an atrocity—or, as Steven Pinker has called it, “an alleged atrocity.”

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