Half a century of (not) caring less

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Jan Freeman, "I could care less: A loathed phrase turns 50", The Boston Globe, 10/24/2010:

It was 50 years ago this month — Oct. 20, 1960 — that one of America’s favorite language disputes showed up in print, in the form of a letter to Ann Landers. A reader wanted Ann to settle a dispute with his girlfriend: “You know that common expression: ‘I couldn’t care less,’ ” he wrote. “Well, she says it’s ‘I COULD care less.’

Ann voted with her reader — “the expression as I understand it is ‘I couldn’t care less’ ” — but she thought the question was trivial. “To be honest,” she concluded, “this is a waste of valuable newspaper space and I couldn’t care less.”

She couldn’t have known it at the time, but her reader’s trivial question would be wasting newspaper space (and bandwidth, too) for decades, as it blossomed into one of the great language peeves of our time.

An on-going discussion on metafilter has a remarkable heat/light ratio, amply supporting Jan's point.

[There are a fair number of past Language Log posts on this topic, for those who care.]



40 Comments

  1. Acilius said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    I write only to implore you not to correct the typo in the first line of the post. I love calling it "The Boston Gobe."

  2. groki said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    it's fewer that I couldn't care.

  3. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Half a century of (not) caring less [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

    [...] Language Log » Half a century of (not) caring less languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2748 – view page – cached Jan Freeman, "I could care less: A loathed phrase turns 50", The Boston Gobe, 10/24/2010: Tweets about this link [...]

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    I can recall my sister going at it with my mother pre-1960 (she went away to college in 1959, and the discussion took place when she was in high school), with our mother being the peevee and my sister being the peever. So the expression, in one form or the other, was certainly current in my family. But I cannot recall ever using it myself. If you care about something and I don't care about that something, we can still be friends. I have no motivation to utter a sarcastic dismissal of the something's importance. I've made it through 50-plus years without having to decide between the two forms of this vile cliché, and I think I'm a better person for doing so. Can't we all just get along?

  5. D. Sky Onosson said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:33 pm

    @ Dick Margulis:

    I couldn't get along less…

    ;)

  6. The Ridger said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    So you despise us all equally, eh, Dick? Makes it hard to get along, you know…

  7. Emma Ehrhardt said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    Is the same thing going on here as in these constructions: "I miss not seeing her" and "I miss not seeing her anymore"? I've been called out for this usage before, but although I know they compositionally don't make sense, it just feels utterly wrong to say "I miss seeing them" and mean the same thing.

  8. Dick Margulis said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

    Emma,

    I think it's different. "I miss not seeing them" is over-negation. You're combining "I miss seeing them" and "I regret not seeing them."

    In the ICCL case, the older form means something like "I do not care at all. My care level is at zero and cannot logically go below zero. Therefore it would be logically impossible for me to care less." The newer form requires a certain archness or implied irony in the voice (I'll leave it to the experts to describe what that intonation is technically) that suggests "I mean exactly the opposite of what I'm saying." (It's one of the rhetorical figures with a Greek name that I can never remember.) I hear it as something like "It would take some effort for me to care less, and this is so unimportant to me that I don't choose to put forth that effort: I could care less but I won't bother to." I think it's proponents might say that it doesn't have the logical integrity of the first form, but it makes up for it with dramatic impact.

  9. Roger said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    This really is one of those debates that seems to keep on going. Logically, I have always the Couldn't version makes the most sense, but Dick Margulis's example does makes sense too. However, most people don't put that amount of effort into it, so it is kind of lost…

  10. John Cowan said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Ishin na' telleth.

  11. Dick Margulis said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Its proponents, not it's proponents

  12. Nicholas Waller said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

    Being British, I use the "I couldn't care less" form and used to dislike the "I could care less" form, but due to the educative properties of, for instance, Language Log*, I now, er, care less. I used to think "I could care less" was prima facie meaningless and wrong, and now I think of it as one of those perhaps-sarcastic phrases with an implied missing bit: "[As if] I could care less".

    *I just quoted from the recent leaf-blower post when replying to someone's brief peeve about "ax" in their** comment on boingboing.

    **A couple of years ago I would have avoided using "their" for a singleton.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    For some reason we never developed the counterpart to the expression. I am unaware of a, 'I could/could not care more' formula. Maybe it lacks the requisite snarkiness.

    In any event, 'I could care more' sounds really wrong (when referring to something I am passionate about). So, I guess this is what motivated 50 years of peevery about ICCL.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    Did anyone ever ask Ann Landers about "no head injury is too trivial to ignore"?

  15. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    The striking thing about this is that if we trust the correspondent, his girlfriend was not not just claiming that 'I could care less' was a legitimate form, but that it was the right one. It's not just prescriptivism versus tolerance, but prescriptivism versus counter-prescriptivism.

    An earlier example of a similar shift is that from 'never so' to 'ever so', which I think was chronicled by Fowler. 'It's never so cold' can be justified compositionally in a way that 'it's ever so cold' can't; but it just sounds wrong.

  16. Bill said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 5:32 pm

    There is a recursive aspect: The phrase is itself the refutation to any objection to its use.

  17. Peter G. Howland said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 6:05 pm

    Fifty-five or sixty years ago I cared about this debate quite a bit. But now there are fewer and fewer occasions when I care. I suppose it would be possible for me to care less, but I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t see how it would be possible for me to care less than I do now. It turns out that I probably couldn’t care less if I tried! In the future there will likely be things I care less about, but this just isn’t one of them…more or less.
    Uh…I think I’m gunna go now. *Eats, Shoots and Leaves*

  18. Eric TF Bat said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    I don't think it's a good idea to argue about this, because doing so risks causing information loss. That is, by convincing people not to use the expression "I could care less" in your presence, you enable them to hide the fact that they are WRONG WRONG WRONG… and then you might not be prepared for other evidence of their WRONGness. Which could be dangerous if, for example, you later need to rely on them to fly your aeroplane or lightly grease your cake tin.

  19. Mark F. said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    I do care somewhat, not because it matters to me which one people use, but because it's kind of an interesting question how the less-logical construction came to predominate. However, it's also a question that's already been pretty thoroughly covered in the posts pointed to above. I will disagree with Dick Margulis to say that, when I use the idiom, it feels to me like a fixed idiom that really is illogical, rather than some kind of sarcasm or litotes. Mark Liberman goes over that issue in some of the earler pointed-to posts.

    (But I agree with him that I really shouldn't use either form of the phrase very often.)

  20. Mr. Fnortner said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    From what I read here, most linguists who write on this blog are anti-prescriptivists to a fault. That is, if someone, somewhere has said or spoken a word or phrase that is not standard (read correct), then the incorrect utterance is miraculously acceptable and has the full support of the linguist crowd.As a speaker of four languages, I am convinced that English is the most powerful, flexible, expressive, forgiving, and capable language we know. Why, in this circumstance, it is necessary to indulge inept speakers in their squalid usages, is beyond my understanding. People who think "I could care less" makes sense have untrustworthy intellects.

  21. Pedant said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    Mr. Fnortner: I advise you to read people's work more carefully before you judge them. There is no shortage of material here where the linguists discuss usages that they do, in fact, consider to be incorrect English rather than merely non-standard. And if you search the archives you will also find several detailed explanations of the difference between descriptivism and the "anything goes" attitude you appear to mistake it for.

  22. Ellen K. said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 9:25 pm

    Mr. Fnortner, they've made clear here that they don't think that, if someone somewhere said it, then it's correct. Mistakes are possible. But this is not some one person's mistake, and it's some some rare mistake. It's something quite common. Like it or not, it's part of the language.

  23. GeorgeW said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 9:40 pm

    Mr. Fnortner, are you really confused about the meaning of the expression? Most speakers of English are not.

  24. Craig said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 9:52 pm

    I think descriptivism is something more like "Go ahead and try to stop language change, even in illogical directions, if you want. You'll only end up old and bitter."

    On singular "they" – I recently heard a radio production of "Strangers on a Train" from 1951. It contained the line "There's a phone call for you. They say it's important."

    And no, it wasn't a conference call. I don't think they had those back then. Though they may have had cell phones.

  25. Wattsy said,

    November 1, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    Here's one that really bothers me.
    "Cheap at half the price." I'm sure the illogic is obvious.
    I'm new to Language Log (I'm a sub-editor, whose job is to be pedantic about language construction…), so you may have covered this before.
    If you have, I'd love a link? Or if you haven't, what do other readers think?

  26. C Thornett said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 3:08 am

    Wattsy: My understanding is that in the expression 'cheap at half the price' the word _cheap_ refers to poor quality, not price. So the item would still be inferior and not a good bargain, even if sold for half the asking price–it is, in fact, over-priced.

  27. bob couttie said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 3:24 am

    "Cheap at half the price." I am sure this august company is an allegedly humourous play on "cheap at twice the price" and deliberately illogical.

  28. bob couttie said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 3:25 am

    "Cheap at half the price." I am sure this august company will have a single technical term for it, it is an allegedly humourous play on "cheap at twice the price" and deliberately illogical.

  29. Barrie England said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    Singular 'they', Craig, goes back way beyond 1951.

  30. richard howland-bolton said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 7:44 am

    Dick M perhaps it's litotes-ish??
    I once did a piece on 'False Enallage'
    http://howlandbolton.com/essays/read_more.php?sid=105

  31. Pflaumbaum said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    For the first time, I heard a British person use "I could care less" a few weeks ago. It actually took me a moment to parse it, even though it's common to hear and understand it in an American accent.

    The woman was Glaswegian, if any of you could care…more?

  32. Will said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    I'm actually firmly on the side of the girlfriend here — "I could care" less feels like the right form, and "I couldn't care less" sounds stilted. That's probably because "I could care less" is almost an atomic unit to me, whereas "I couldn't care less" is a sentence.

    @Craig, to follow up on Barrie's point, the OED has citations for singular they as far back as the 1500s, and citations for singular their as far back as the 1300s.

  33. Faldone said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    Somebody could care passionately about some thing and could not imagine caring with a lesser level of passion. That person could logically say, "I couldn't care less."

  34. Craig said,

    November 2, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    Barrie, Will – I don't doubt it, but if it had been an ongoing feature of standard English for the last 700 years, nobody would be debating it here and elsewhere.

  35. J. Goard said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 12:44 am

    That's probably because "I could care less" is almost an atomic unit to me, whereas "I couldn't care less" is a sentence.

    Will hit the nail on the head.

    Could care less isn't irony. It's a fixed expression that has simplified phonologically (as such things are wont to do) by dropping off the phonological detritus of an unanalyzed morpheme. It's like the way iced cream has lost the participial suffix.

    Putting parts together, fusing them when they become frequent enough, and then reducing the resulting pattern — this is language change in a nutshell. Give it a couple hundred years, and you might find:

    I cailess whether your brother got a new neural implant Playstation XXVII.

  36. dirk alan said,

    November 3, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    i may or may not care less. too close to call.

  37. AA said,

    November 5, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    Coincidentally, I recently included the "could/couldn't care less' peeve in this writeup, which I hope entertains you:
    http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5874124/dante_was_an_author_people.html?cat=10

  38. maidhc said,

    November 6, 2010 @ 6:29 am

    Eric TF Bat: I have to say that I cannot imagine a situation in which I would invite strangers to grease my cake tin.

    (Is this where music hall humour originated?)

  39. Janet G. said,

    January 9, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    Re "I could care less": as a private-school teenager in the first half of the 1950s, I KNOW how the phrase got started, because I was there. The original version was, "I could care less…" (pause) "but I don't know how." This became so common that the second phrase was omitted, as being understood. In spoken language, the stress lay upon "could," indicating the absence of the second phrase.

  40. Eric said,

    March 28, 2014 @ 3:14 am

    So it’s actually a very interesting linguistic development. But it is still regarded as slangy, and also has some social class stigma attached.

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