A message from the Queen

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Via David Mitchell's soap box, an excellent explanation, with inhabitable graphics, of why "could care less" seems illogical to those who haven't accepted it as an idiom:

Note that Mitchell opens the segment sitting on an oversized book whose spine reads "Common USAge Mistakes". The whole thing continues the jokey anti-American peeving exhibited in Robin Lane Fox's recent discussion of Emily Dickinson's "typically American problem with spelling … [and her] dire grammar and her violent abuse of prepositions, verbs and apparently hanging subjects".

Is this apparent trend towards bashing features of colonial language somehow connected with the new Tory-led government?

For those who are interested in the "could care less" idiom, there's some discussion in a few early LL posts, e.g. "Most of the people in the world could care less", 7/16/2004, and "Speaking sarcastically?", 7/16/2004.

[Update — For a small dose of semi-fact about the geographical distribution of these forms, here are some Google counts particularized by domain (e.g. {site:.ac.uk "could care less"} ):

"couldn't care less" "could care less" % could care
.co.uk 47,700 11,700 20%
.ac.uk 422 473 53%
.com 892,000 1,840,000 67%
.edu 3,920 4,510 53%
.wordpress.com 17,900 24,600 58%
facebook.com 23,300 49,500 68%
www.nydailynews.com 261 553 68%
nytimes.com 1,960 2,310 54%
wsj.com 190 109 36%
www.scotsman.com 94 141 60%
www.dailymail.co.uk 577 350 38%
guardian.co.uk 2,750 580 17%
www.telegraph.co.uk 1,030 207 17%
ft.com 262 3 1%
.au 22,300 4,720 17%
www.theaustralian.com.au 190 2 1%

Note that the percentages for .ac.uk, .edu, and nytimes.com are all about the same, namely just a bit over 50% "could care less".  Although Google counts are suspect in general, these numbers paint a fairly consistent picture of the effects of geography and class, and (given the implication of an overall demotic trend) suggest that the Queen may soon have to move to Australia.]

[Update #2 — Many of the "could care less" examples on British sites are in discussions of the idiom, and many others are contributed by Americans or Canadians,  in quotations or in readers' comments or in reprinted articles and so on. But there are some native-looking examples, e.g. this

Now I understand why O'Neil didn't want Barry to leave Villa, he's been tremendous for City from day one. Personally I could care less how Villa fans react, although as this article suggests they should applaud him if they have any sense. Hopefully the occasion won't get to Gareth and he'll maintain his usual high standard of play, and contribute to what I trust will be a great game of football.

– Gan Canny, Middlesbrough, UK,

Or this:

Policemen are not what they used to be. Standards of law, representatives of probity and morals.
I could care less about just another accident…unless it was a deliberate killing of innocent peoiple.

– Kentish man, medway, Kent.

Or again this:

It ruined my life, my marriage, and my children's lives. To this day I do not know how it was done. I never used my credit card outside a bank and never, ever, left personal details in rubbish bags (even then). The card has to have been used by someone working for the bank. The bank could care less, and the police did talk to the bank but then did not bother to investigate. No apology, no explanation, nothing. Just hell for 11 years.

– Simon, Bath, England,



  1. John Walden said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    Despite the leg-pulling I think Brits are on the whole quite relaxed about English. We don't seem to claim ownership overly and are quite prepared to tolerate all the Englishes that abound. I'd say that the UK is not the country where grammar mavens and style guiders thrive on the insecurities of people who want invented sets of rules for everything from dating and wearing white shoes to what is and isn't 'correct' English.

    In fact there really is only one English-speaking country with a hang-up about these kinds of things. It's the rest of us who treat the whole business of 'correct' with a great deal more insouciance.

  2. Laura said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:20 am

    Is this apparent trend towards bashing features of colonial language somehow connected with the new Tory-led government?

    The could vs couldn't care less problem has been driving me insane for years. David Mitchell himself finds that this isn't the first time it's been covered either: John Cleese produced a very very similar video two years ago, when we were still under a Labour government. That video can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCUsPnKD1gk. It's more the fact that it simply doesn't seem to make any sense to us Brits, seeing as if you could care less, then obviously you care a bit, and if you'd really like to show how apathetic you are, you would have thought you couldn't be able to care less. I've read the post where you explain it, and despite being a linguistics student, I still don't get it. So no, it's not colonial language bashing; we've accepted you've modified the language we thought we knew, and we're happy with that. It's just when there are glaring 'mistranslations' that don't work, we get a bit picky.

    [(myl) There seem to be quite a few people using the "could care less" form in domains like .co.uk and .ac.uk — are they all American infiltrators? (See the table at the end of the post.)]

  3. language hat said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    Toward the end he mentions "BER-nard" as an example of the kind of Americanism he's willing to allow us. I have never heard an American say this with initial stress, and in fact I think of it as a Briticism. Am I wrong?

  4. Timothy Martin said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    @language hat: Listen again – he says ber-NARD.

  5. T-Rex said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    @ Language Hat

    I don't think that's quite what David Mitchell is trying to say. although it seems like it is.

    I'm British and I pronounce Bernard with the first syllable as a long NURSE vowel and the second as a schwa, with the stress on the first syllable.

    My understanding is that a speaker with a standard American accent pronounces the first syllable as a schwa and the second syllable as a long CAR vowel.

    (Even if I'm slightly wrong about the pronunciation, I think what I've put is the impression most Brits have, so I think Mitchell is trying to make a point based on that perception.)

    So there is a difference in stress pattern AND a (related) difference in vowel qualities.

    The way Mitchell stresses the sentence puts emphasis on the first syllable of Bernard, apparently implying that this stress is what is contrastive between American and British English. I think this is merely a carry over from his previous stress of the initial syllable of (the noun) research, which he stressed because that stress pattern IS indicative of US rather than UK English.

    So either he's trying to highlight the vowel quality difference, but he's said it in a confusing way, which has caused confusion, or he actually thinks the critical difference is stress pattern not vowel quality.

    In a way, the latter is right because the stress pattern causes the vowel quality change, because the unstressed vowels reduce to schwa. But he's not a Linguist so I don't think that's what he was getting at.

    He is a very smart and cultured man though, and because I like him I'd be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he's getting at a difference in vowel quality but made it ambiguous with the emphasis of his delivery.

  6. MattF said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    Mitchell needs to do something about those teeth.

  7. Riviera said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    May I just say, as an American, that the phrase "could care less" has NEVER made sense to me and has actually bothered me for some time. It's actually nice to see I'm not the only one.

  8. Frans said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    My wife (Chicagoland) says she couldn't care less.

    @T-Rex: The "correct" pronunciation is /bərˈnɑrd/, which is what Mitchell was saying (or at least trying to). I agree that it came out somewhat strange. Brits might opt for /ˈbərnəd/ instead, if I'm not messing that up? There might be some slight diphthongization, but it can't be much. :P Dictionary.com's IPA transcription on that entry is messed up; that's for sure.

  9. mollymooly said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    I surmise that Mitchell overenunciates the first syllable of /bərˈnɑrd/ (ie as /ˌbɜˈnɑːd/ rather than /bəˈnɑːd/) for fear that the British audience the piece is aimed at would not recognise that /bəˈnɑːd/ was "Bernard". His faux-American pronunciation is more confusing for real Americans –but more understandable in the context for Brits– than a closer approximation would have been.

  10. Urban Garlic said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

    This rather begs the question (!) as to whether or not idiomatic expressions are actually required to make logical sense when interpreted in a stand-alone kind of way.

    I confess I've always sort of liked "could care less" as a kind of short-hand for "I could care less about , if I put some effort into it, but I don't care enough to put the effort in." Interpreted this way, it has nice layers of self-reference and sarcasm. I am reminded of Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre in "Casablanca" — Lorre: "You despise me, don't you Rick?", Bogart: "I suppose if I thought about it, I probably would."

    But that's me. Of course I have no way of knowing if speakers of the "could care less" idiom intend it that way.

    The broader point is that I think most people use idioms in a way that they've heard others use them, and don't necessarily see the need to think them through. Thus we preserve things like "cut the mustard", which may or may not actually make any sense as an expression of achievement.

    Note: I was also going to use "fly off the handle" as an example of a perfectly useful but nonsensical idiom, but a bit of googling turns up an etymological claim related to the unpredictable and dangerous behavior of loose axe blades in a wood-chopping context. This sort of reinforces my point, but in a way I didn't intend — I've been using "fly off the handle" to mean "violently over-react" for decades, and been correctly understood, but only today did I learn the etymology.

  11. Bloix said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    On herb and Bernard: sometimes the English pronounce words of non-English origin as if they were English, while Americans retain some vestige of the original pronunciation, e.g., GA-ridge (English), gah – RAAZH (American), Don QUICK-sote (English), Donkey-HOTE-y (American), Michael Angelo (English), Mikkle-AN-jel-o (American).

    On idioms, my own current pet peeve is "keep your powder dry," "keeping our powder dry," which literally means to keep things in working order in anticipation of the need to use them soon (because in the days before cartridges, when loading a gun meant pouring in the gunpowder from a horn, damp powder would fizzle) – but is almost always used now to mean "holding our fire," or refraining from acting precipitately, which is not the same thing at all.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    I seem to remember that "could care less" was discusse on this very blog two or three years ago, and that the logic of this use was vigorously defended as an ironic positive.

    BernARD or BERNard: -ard or -ald is a suffix of Germanic origin (see German Bernhard, Gerhard, Reginhard, Eberhard, which are stressed on the first syllable). Why BernARD and not RichARD or GerALD, ReginALD? Why RICHard and not BERNard? And there are also RICHie (and DICKie), REGGie and BERNie, all with initial stress. "BernARD" seems to be an odd exception to the general rule of initial stress (perhaps it was adopted through French, in spite of being Germanic?).

  13. Tom said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    @Frans, yes, you are messing that up slightly.

    British (non-rhotic) standard: /ˈbɜːnəd/
    US standard: /bərˈnɑrd/

    Mitchell is trying to say the second, from the POV of a British speaker; most of us will only have heard this version in US media. I agree he makes it sound a little strange. As for the "correct" pronunciation, no such thing exists.

  14. dw said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    @John Walden:

    I think Brits are on the whole quite relaxed about English.

    I don't know. One of the most reliable ways to get the Brits to abandon an established usage is to brand it, however inaccurately, as an "Americanism". See e.g. "ize" vs. "ise", or "tire" vs. "tyre".


    Actually Donkey-HOTE-y is not the "original" pronunciation. In the Spanish of Cervantes, the "x" of Quixote represented a "sh" sound.

  15. Terry Collmann said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    I'm surprised nobody has yet pointed out that David Mitchell is wrong about "tidbits" versus "titbits", where in fact Americans are using the older version of the word, rather than, as Mitchell claims, making a bowdlerised attempt to avoid saying the word "tit".

  16. Susie said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    I actually started saying "i could care less, but I really don't."

  17. Picky said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    Of course idioms don't have to be logical; but the problem with "could care less" is that the idiom "couldn't care less" exists and (in BrE at least) is dominant. In those circs the positive, however ironic or whatever, will seem just daft to many. Happily it matters not a damn.

    [(myl) It seems to be less "dominant" these days in BrE than one might think — see the counts in the table above.]

  18. George Amis said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    I'm an American, and my pronunciation of Bernard is utterly inconsistent. I stress the first syllable in the middle name of George Bernard Shaw, the names of the two people I know named Bernard, and even the first name of the Jules Feiffer character Bernard Mergendeiler (although in the last case, I'm probably dead wrong). But I stress the second syllable of the St. Bernard dog and the saint it's named after. Could the initial stressing possibly be a kind of Southernism?

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    I'd be inclined to agree that British speakers have fewer hangups about correct grammar than Americans, and that the whole phenomenon of the "usage maven" is much less widespread in the UK than in North America. That said, however, British speakers are VASTLY more concerned about regional and social accent than North Americans (or for that matter, more than people in any other European country I'm familiar with). When one of my sons was 3 or 4 and at a private nursery [daycare] in the early 1990s, a number of the parents complained to the woman who ran the place about the speech of the young working-class women who actually looked after their children. The woman who ran the place was a decent and well-meaning relic from the late 1960's, and was really upset by the complaints, but she was unusual. For most middle-class British parents, class-related accent consciousness runs so deep that wayward vowels and glottal stops are cause for concern even when a child is only 3.

  20. dl said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 2:41 pm


  21. James C. said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

    The intonation between ‘could care less’ and ‘couldn’t care less’ is distinctive, which is another reason why the former is ironic or sarcastic. For the sentences ‘I could care less’ and ‘I couldn’t care less’, in (General American English) ToBI transcription I have an H* on ‘couldn’t’ but no accent on ‘could’, with a final H* on ‘less’ for both sentences. Thus the first is %L ‘I could care’ H* ‘less’ L-L% but the second is %L ‘I’ H* ‘could’ L- ‘n’t care’ H* ‘less’ L-L%.

    [(myl) This has been asserted, notably by Steve Pinker, but it appears to be entirely false as a matter of mere fact. See "Speaking sarcastically?", 7/16/2004 (linked in the body of the post). If you have some evidence for your belief, beyond a perhaps-circular intuition, I'd love to see it.]

    The fact that there is an intonation difference between the two sentences implies that they are different categories of utterance, rather than both being simple declaratives. The ‘couldn’t’ does look like a declarative, with the “hat” pattern of two H* accents with a phrasal L- tone sagging between them. The ‘could’ is unusual, and I’m not sure what this intonation pattern means, but it’s not simply declarative.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    @John Walden: On the whole, Americans are relaxed about English too—the evidence includes "I could care less", or do you feel that's "not too good of evidence"? Whether a bigger minority of Americans or British people like to peeve about English is an interesting statistical question. I doubt there is, or are, any data.

  23. Chris Brew said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

    I agree with both of Bob Ladd's impressions. American's are more likely to be anxious about norms of written usage, Brits are more likely to be anxious about class- and region-related markers in spoken language. It's no accident that Pygmalion is British and Dave Barry's "Ask Mr Language Person" is American.

  24. Fog said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    David Mitchell co-writes the soapboxes ahead of time, so I doubt the change in government has been in place long enough to affect these early episodes.

    [(myl) The (jocular) suggestion was not that the change in government caused an increase in class-linked language peevery, but rather that the same shift in the zeitgeist caused both a change in government and an increase in class-linked language peevery.]

    For a good audio example of how Brits pronounce Bernard, see the show Black Books, which is available to US viewers on Hulu. The main character is called Bernard Black.

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    There's also the informal colloquial French expression "T'inquiète", which literally means "worry" but is used to mean "don't worry".

  26. Frans said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

    @Tom: You seem to have understood the scare quotes differently than I intended them. Perhaps I should've added a winking smiley? Here's one just in case. ;)

    Thanks for the British pronunciation. Here's some reference audio supporting what you said (which I didn't check up on previously). That said, the r in there was a c/p mistake I overlooked somehow.

  27. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    Terry, I am astonished that it took you so long to make this point:

    I'm surprised nobody has yet pointed out that David Mitchell is wrong about "tidbits" versus "titbits", where in fact Americans are using the older version of the word, rather than, as Mitchell claims, making a bowdlerised attempt to avoid saying the word "tit".

    Well, it pricked my attention also. David's misconception is quite common. OED gives both, but in its etymology has tid-bit ("now chiefly N. Amer.") preceding tit-bit, all treated at a rare double headword entry ("tit-bit, tid-bit"), with the entry "tid-bit" saying simply "an earlier form of tit-bit".

    Anyway, I think most non-Americans who actively prefer tid-bits to tit-bits do so for the vulgar devulgarising reason. Compare perhaps a solely American preference for pronouncing asthma with /z/ rather than /s/, which may be to avoid the component ass (British arse).

  28. Karen said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 7:24 pm

    Unfortunately for some, there are several expressions that come in positive and negative forms but which mean the same thing either way. Such as "you (don't) know squat about it" or "that'll teach you (not) to do that…"

    Why? As one of my earliest Russian teachers used to say, "Because it's English". (Although he used to say " Because it's Russian", or really "Potomu, chto ehto russky yazyk", but you get my point…)

  29. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    marie-lucie: Richard with the final stress is definitely heard (it also changes to /sh/ from /ch/). Some might spell it slightly differently, but it's in the wild.

  30. Bloix said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    Scriptor Ig – I would think that the "az" of asthma in American English results from assimilation to the voiced m. For examples of unvoiced s in American English, see asphalt, aspic, aspect, etc.

  31. Elizabeth Braun said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    No, no, nothing whatsoever to do with whose running the country, it's just that some people hate bad usage – full stop! I'm one of them, and I haven't the least political leaning, so I can say that with confidence.=)

    I am very grateful that 'Her Majesty' (I wonder what she'd say if she saw that vid??) didn't give permission to continue spelling 'a lot' as all one word. If you haven't done so before Language Loggers, please do a soapbox spot on this one – I LOATHE IT. I used to deduct marks in the exams I marked from anyone who wrote 'alot', but I did warn them beforehand. What stunned me is that one MA student looked at me in total amazement and asked, 'Is that *wrong*?' UGH!

  32. Mark F. said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    Marie-Lucie (this is also relevant to James C) –

    You're right that it was discussed earlier — the discussions were linked to in the original post. And the conclusion was that "I could care less" was probably not ironic or sarcastic, but another less conscious process. That fits my intuition. For myself I just absorbed the idiom as a unit, not heeding the fact that it's illogical.

    The reason it doesn't sound like sarcasm or irony to me is that the literal interpretation feels very unnatural. I can say "That's great" to mean something actually is great, or that it's really bad. If "I could care less" is sarcasm, it's equivalent to saying "Things aren't as bad as they could be" when in fact they are, which is possible but a tricky kind of irony to pull off.

  33. Painni said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

    'I couldn't care less' sounds a bit ridiculous to me – or should I say, it's an odd phrase to read, because I can't think of a single time in my life I have heard someone say it. Was it really the original idiom?

    I do say 'I could care less', unapologetically, and I don't think of it as ironic or illogical – I think it carries an implied finish. 'I could care less, [but it would be remarkable, because I care very little about this.]'

    Not to attempt some … global justification of it, but it's how the language makes sense to me.

  34. Timm! said,

    May 23, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    I'd like to point out that saying "I couldn't care less" does not axiomatically mean you are at 0 or null on the caring scale; it simply means you are the lowest point of possible caring, for you, on the subject at hand. I have two children and can truthfully say "I couldn't care less about them" even though I care deeply constantly for them; my minimum caring for/about them is quite considerable.

  35. Nijma said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 12:15 am

    Scriptor Ignotior: Compare perhaps a solely American preference for pronouncing asthma with /z/ rather than /s/, which may be to avoid the component ass (British arse).
    Bloix: I would think that the "az" of asthma in American English results from assimilation to the voiced m. For examples of unvoiced s in American English, see asphalt, aspic, aspect, etc.

    But we also have the example of asylum, assume, assonance, asset, assimilate, and assassin, pronounced with /s/ even though followed by voiced sounds. Americans don't seem to worry too much about pronouncing "ass" as a component of those words. (And "ass" and non-rhotic "arse" sound pretty much the same to me.)

    Maybe the pronunciation comes more directly from the Greek root azein, which, according to Online Etymology Dictionary, is either "breathe hard" from Greek asthma "a panting," or "dry up" from Greek azaleos "dry" . The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says:

    as-…4. extended form *asd-. a. ZAMIA, from Greek azein, to dry; b. AZALEA, from Greek azeleos, dry.

    And we pronounce the flower azalea with a /z/ as well.

  36. Judy Redman said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    @ George Amis: I am Australian and I generally pronounce Bernard with the stress on the first syllable, except in the name of the dog, which may well support your "Southernism theory". :-) I suspect that this has something to do with the language of origin of the dog.

    And @ Mark Liberman: the Queen would probably be welcomed by most Australians as long as the British government continued to pay her allowance. If we had to pay to keep her in the style to which she is accustomed, most of the remaining monarchists would rapidly turn republican, I suspect.

  37. Judy Redman said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 1:01 am

    Bother – I suspect that the latter has somethign to do with the language of origin of the dog…. (poor proof reading)

  38. Timothy Martin said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 1:17 am

    Re: "could care less" – it's funny, people are really serious about explaining this one away, even in the face of the evidence. Language is arbitrary, this phrase means what it does because people use it that way, and at least enough of them are able to keep their conscious minds out of it so that the literal meaning of the phrase doesn't bother them. It's okay people, it's okay.

  39. mollymooly said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    The attitude of Brits to Americanisms is similar to the attitude of the French to anglicisms. Some people deplore them, others embrace them. The Guardian has 21 hits for "sophomore album". (My Firefox spellchecker has just undelined "sophomore". And shouldn't that be "spelling checker"?)

  40. BW said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 1:51 am

    When I do the google count, I get 234 results for .ac.uk with "couldn't care less" and 118 with "could care less". I clicked through to the last page of the results for this because the estimated counts are not reliable. Among the hits for "could care less" there were a number that simply referred to the difference between British and American usage and some that quoted Americans. So even if we accept the numbers as if they reflected British usage, the percentage is only 33%.

  41. dw said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 2:02 am

    @Urban Garlic, @Painni:

    Your explanations of how "could care less" actually does make sense to you are wonderful — especially the Casablanca reference! You are doing what ML has aptly described elsewhere as given an idiomatic lemon, [making] semantic lemonade.

    When I next hear someone say "could care less" I shall try to think of Bogart and Rains instead of gritting my teeth. Should improve my stress levels!

  42. John Walden said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 2:17 am

    @Jerry Friedman: I'm sure you're right that most Americans are as relaxed as the British. The fact remains though that the industry of reassuring the unsure, or making them feel inadequate, is largely American; while there's the venerable Fowler and Lynn Truss's book for reading on the toilet there's a litany of "authorities" from the other side of the pond, including Safire, Garner, Strunk-n-White, numerous style manuals and various Miss Grammars and Dr Grammars on-line. I can't say that the American minority is larger than the British but it does seem keener on consulting 'experts'. It's telling, though far from hard evidence, that Mitchell is really using his personal authority as an English speaker to have a dig at AmE usage but dresses it up with the authority of the Queen.

    One thing I have noticed is that AmE and BrE speakers are quick to assume that any unfamiliar usage is 'British' or 'American'. A third of the way down any list of differences I can guarantee that there's an entry that I take issue with. Just as an example, I too pronounce 'garage' in a vaguely French way: 'garridge' is very common-sounding. Proving that we are far more worried about opening our mouths and giving the wrong message about our class (and I'm not talking about our Socialist dental work).

  43. maidhc said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:23 am

    Something I've observed about Brits who complain about the Americanisation of English: if you haul out your OED and say something like "Spenser used that in The Faerie Queene" (e.g., lie/lay), they get really apoplectic.

    "could care less"—as someone who deals with logic, it bothers me, but the ironic usage does make sense.

    A Romanian I knew about 30 years ago (with American-born children) said that there is a lot of modern American English usage that's like acting. He was talking about the He's all "what?" type of structure. He's now a successful journalist. I guess he has figured out American usage enough to get by.

    There is a giant bug on my computer. Never mind, it just flew away. I guess spring is the time for bugs.

  44. Picky said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:59 am

    I'm astonished at the suggestion that "could care less" is the form used a third of the time in BrE. My first reaction, of course, is to doubt Google counting as a reliable method of research (I'll work out why I should think that later). But anything other than very marginal use of this form would astonish me. Is it at all possible that I'm ignorant? Surely not!

  45. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    On idioms, my own current pet peeve is "keep your powder dry," "keeping our powder dry," which literally means to keep things in working order in anticipation of the need to use them soon (because in the days before cartridges, when loading a gun meant pouring in the gunpowder from a horn, damp powder would fizzle) – but is almost always used now to mean "holding our fire," or refraining from acting precipitately, which is not the same thing at all.

    I come across this idiom a lot in a professional context, and it's always used in the conventional sense. Specifically, it is used to mean preserving or increasing balance sheet capacity (cash or capital, depending on the institution) to invest in an upcoming opportunity. Bankers are always talking about trying to find investors with dry powder, ie capacity to invest.

  46. James said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    It would've been nice to have some West Coast US data. When I was a boy, my family moved from California to the New York area, and I remember noticing that people there would say "could care less", which didn't make much sense to me.

  47. N said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    I wonder how much people complaining about "could care less" affects the .co.uk results. It accounts for four of the first ten results for me.

    And let's not forget examples like "nobody could care less" which would also be included…

  48. Steve F said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    One of the (many) things I've learnt from Language Log over the years is that the differences between US and UK English are not nearly as neat and well-defined as I once thought they were. So it is here – 'garage', 'Don Quixote' and 'Michelangelo', for example, are all pronounced both ways in the UK, as are many other words, for example 'schedule'. I can say that definitively because I'm British and I myself pronounce all four of those words differently at different times. But I have to say I am astonished by the number of apparently British Google hits there are for 'I could care less'. I have never in my life said 'I could care less' (well, except in quotation marks) and it sounds absolutely as illogical and strange to me as it does to David Mitchell. It is obviously possible that there are whole swathes of British English speakers who say 'I could care less' that I am unaware of (and of course one tends to hear what one expects), but a quick look at a selection of the Google hits suggests that quite a lot of them are discussing this very point and, like me, are using 'I could care less' in quotation marks. So I'd be interested if any British readers, perhaps younger ones – younger than me anyway – do use 'I could care less' naturally.

    Of course, I accept quite happily that for American speakers (or some of them) it sounds absolutely natural, and is entirely standard. There is as little point arguing about it as there is over 'chaise-longue' versus 'chaise-lounge', or how to pronounce 'tomato'. There are, after all, plenty of other illogicalities in the English language – 'head over heels' should really be 'heels over head', since the former is actually the normal position for us bipeds, but I haven't worried my head about that since I was about ten years old.

    I am interested in the derivation of 'I could care less' though. I have always assumed that – as the more logical version – 'I couldn't care less' came first, and that 'I could care less' arose as an ellision which, by some sort of eggcornish process, not dissimilar to the arguments of Urban Garlic and Painni above, eventually took over, but I don't know. Does anyone?

  49. Nick said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 12:43 pm


    All those examples you give have the [s] in different phonological environments. In asthma, the [s] is the coda of a syllable preceding a voiced onset. (And in asphalt, the [s] is also a coda that precedes a voiceless onset [f].) In asylum, the [s] is the onset, and even though it does precede a voiced sound, that sound is a vowel and not a consonant.

  50. Nick said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    To append my above post: asthma actually as the [sm] cluster as a complex onset of the second syllable, but it is still different than asylum, as the [s] precedes a voiced consonant, not just a vowel.

  51. Anonymous said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Regarding 'titbit', I'm an American, and I've never seen that word in my life. I use 'tidbit', not to avoid 'tit', but because it's the only version that I actually recognize as a word.

  52. Copernicus said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    [(myl) It seems to be less "dominant" these days in BrE than one might think — see the counts in the table above.]

    Mark, you keep repeating this but I think you're wrong. The statistics merely demonstrate (i) that the expression isn't one that's likely to appear on, e.g. a British university web site; and (ii) at least a handful of the authors of British university web pages would appear to be Americans. A significant proportion of the hits on co.uk sites would appear to be critics of the American usage, and a further tranche, reviews of hotels and the like by American writers. Is there any real evidence for your claim?

  53. Nijma said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    At first the explanation made sense to me. After all, for pronouncing words ending in -ed, the end consonant is either vocalized or not –/t/ or /d/–depending on the preceding consonant: price-priced /t/, prize-prized /d/. But it holds true for vowels as well: pry-pried /d/.
    So why would it matter for "as-" whether it is followed by a vowel or a consonant?–vocalized is vocalized. You can find more examples of unvocalized consonants that follow "as-": aspirate, asbestos…but there aren't that many words with a vocalized consonant following "as-". Maybe Asgard, if you want to count foreign place names. Webster's online says it can be pronounce with either /s/ or /z/, but I can't say I've ever heard it pronounced in American English.

    And "hold down the fort" that's supposedly American English–never heard of it, although we can "hold down" a job.

  54. dw said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

    I must be the only person to pronounce the "th" in "asthma". In my case it's unvoiced, as /ˈæsθmə/: do any AmErs have / ˈæzðmə/? That would be a wonderful cluster!

    Getting back on topic, I would like to add my voice to those skeptical of the widespread usage of "could care less" in BrE, pace Google.

  55. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    Bloix, Nijma, Nick:

    My observation was cautious:

    Compare perhaps a solely American preference for pronouncing asthma with /z/ rather than /s/, which may be to avoid the component ass (British arse).

    Bloix wrote:

    I would think that the "az" of asthma in American English results from assimilation to the voiced m. For examples of unvoiced s in American English, see asphalt, aspic, aspect, etc.

    What Nick said. In those examples we can expect only /s/, but with /m/ both /s/ and /z/ are available. Compare variant pronunciations of jasmine, basmati, and for that matter Muslim, glasnost, and even version. Compare also Spanish uncertainty between /s/ and /z/ before /m/ (or /n/ or /l/?). Compare also variation among Romance languages in the treatment of words ending in –asm[o,e] or –ism[o,e], and our anglicising pronunciations of these, which tend toward a uniform /z/.

    In Nijma's examples the stress is not on the relevant syllable, which would have a bearing on whether the ass is "felt". (That reminds me to ask: is asphalt ever pronounced /ˈaʃfelt/ in America, as it sometimes is elsewhere?)

    As for could care less, it is remarkable to see this defended as rational. I suppose the defenders would also find a justification for as far as without some continuation such as … is concerned. As far as such post hoc justifications, I could care less.

  56. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 24, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    @John Walden: It's true that we're way ahead on books and columns that tell you how to write proper English, so maybe our usage-insecure minority is bigger than yours, as you said.

    @Nijma: I think "hold down the fort" has pretty much replaced "hold the fort" among the people I talk to here in New Mexico, and I'm with Mitchell all the way on it. Well, maybe not at such length.

    Speaking of British pronunciation insecurity, what do British people think of Mitchell's lack of a "linking r" in "Dea[r] Americans" "he[r] English", "ca[re] at all"? I feel sure it's overcompensation to avoid saying "lore and order", "withdrawral", etc., but does it sound normal or affected to you? Is it frequent or infrequent? I hear it from the BBC World announcers, but I don't know how normal their speech is.

  57. Steve F said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 9:07 am

    @ Jerry Friedman. With regard to the lack of a linking 'r' in David Mitchell's speech, to my South East British ear, it sounds so normal that I have trouble noticing it at all. Most British (at any rate non-Scottish British) accents are non-rhotic and that would seem to apply to linking 'r' too, at least to some extent. BBC World Service announcers may not be absolutely typical, but their pronunciation is no longer wildly different from the way that middle-class, educated, southern English speakers such as Mitchell speak. I probably sound fairly similar myself – though with an occasional London 'twang' that Mitchell (born in Wiltshire, brought up in Oxford, educated at Cambridge) lacks.

    By the way, I continue to share Copernicus' doubts about the Google evidence for the frequency of 'I could care less' in British contexts, and repeat my invitation for any British readers who do use the expression to make themselves known.

  58. Picky said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    I suspect, though, Steve F, that many of us with Londonish middleclassish accents use the intrusive r in the pub, but unconsciously avoid it when speaking in more formal surroundings (including to the camera). Mitchell seems to me to be speaking in his stage voice here – I cannot claim to know how he talks in the pub.

  59. Steve F said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    @ Picky. Yes, I'm sure you're right – Mitchell is obviously 'on' and more self-conscious than he might be 'in the pub'. My own accent veers quite widely between a fairly cultured version of what used to be called 'RP' and a more demotic accent that our American friends might feel is close to 'cockney', (though it's actually South-West London and a long way from Bow Bells), depending on the company I'm with.

    By the way, I notice that Mark has added an update conceding that many of the apparent British instances of 'I could care less' may be quotations or from Americans, but he has found at least three that look genuine. I'm still interested whether any British readers have noticed it over here. If it is starting to appear, I wonder if it is an Americanism, picked up consciously or unconsciously from our exposure to American TV and movies, or if it is starting to develop in the way I guessed it had arisen in US English, as an elision or a mishearing of 'I couldn't care'?

  60. Picky said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    In my (our?) spoken language there is very nearly an elision already, of course, and that plus exposure to the AmE form would provide a natural way for things to develop here, no doubt.

  61. bloix said,

    May 25, 2010 @ 10:15 pm

    Scriptor Ig-
    "with /m/ both /s/ and /z/ are available. Compare variant pronunciations of jasmine, basmati, and for that matter Muslim, glasnost, and even version."

    Not in any variety of American English I've ever heard. The first three always are "z" and the last is always "zh." Glasnost is either "glassnoast" or "glahssnoast" but anyone who says it is self-consciously using a foreign word, so it's not really relevant.
    It's interesting that two of these words have obsolete variants that separate the s from the m with a vowel, and both do have unvoiced s: jessamine and Musselman.

    And as for "could care less" I see it as the sort of irony that's become almost reflexive in American popular speech. Other examples: gag me, tell me about it, just shoot me.

  62. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 2:01 am

    Bloix, SOED on those words:

    jasmine: /s/ is given first, /z/ second
    basmati: /s/ first, /z/ second
    Muslim: /z/ first, /s/ second
    glasnost: /z/ first, /s/ second
    version: only /ʃ/ is given

    I don't think the pronunciation of glasnost is irrelevant at all. Being recent and an import, it shows how speakers deal with new material untrammelled by traditional practice. (Only Americans would render its second vowel as "oa", by the way. ☺)

  63. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:26 am

    @Steve F. and Picky: Thanks for the comments. Is it fair to say that hardly anybody in Britain pronounces and doesn't pronounce [r] in the Classic RP way? That is, very few people consistently have an [r] in the spar is and the rotor is and don't have one in the spa is and the rota is? I don't hear much from the BBC World announcers and reporters, but very little of what I do hear follows the classic rule.

    In fact, I'm getting the impression that classic non-rhoticism is now very rare in all the traditionally non-rhotic places.

  64. Bloix said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    Scriptor Ig-
    I don't think an American would say "jassmine." But I will keep my ears open. One possible example would be as a name for an African-American girl or woman, because in my admittedly unprofessional experience there is a tendency among some African Americans to "unvoice" certain consonants.

  65. dw said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    @Jerry Friedman:

    What you describe as "the classic rule" (i.e. linking r but no intrusive r) has probably always been an aspirational or didactic norm rather than linguistic reality for non-rhotic speakers. I doubt that it has ever been a consistent feature of spontaneous speech for such speakers.

    Back in 1982, John Wells wrote that "linking /r/ and intrusive /r/ are distinct only historically and orthographically" (quoted at Wikipedia).

  66. Picky said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    @Jerry Friedman: be aware that I'm talking off the top of my head, here, and probably out of my backside too, but I think the position is as follows (simplified extraordinarily, of course): Rhotic areas of Britain, especially in Scotland, less so in rhotic areas close to us slovenly Londoners, give a rhotic 'r' in the spar is, and no 'r' in the spa is.

    Non-rhotic areas tend to be in England, and therefore follow the usual rule: it's all about flipping class. True RP speakers are found in the professional middle classes, and speak the way you describe (with a non-rhotic 'r' of course). The rank and file hoi polloi can't be bothered with all this nonsense and give a non-rhotic 'r' in all positions (ie including intrusive and linking r). The broad swathe of the rest of us in the terminally worried classes switch between the two depending on how (a) socially confused (b) socially exposed and (c) drunk we are.

  67. Daevol said,

    May 26, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    I like the Casablanca interpretation! I've always assumed the phrase derived from "I couldn't care less"; it's only a couple phonemes away, and the removal of those sounds turns the somewhat awkward "couldn't" into a very easy "could". When it comes to idioms — particularly those expressing apathy — I think ease of pronunciation trumps logical precision.

    But I really commented so I could share this AH usage note:
    ‘‘‘It is true that a close examination of the syntax of the phrase I could care less reveals that it ought by rights to mean something like “I care more than I might,” rather than “I don't care at all.” But while the illogicality of a phrase may be reason enough for excluding it from formal writing, this illogicality cannot be invoked as grounds for keeping it out of the colloquial language, particularly when the phrase is itself an expression of casual indifference.’’’

  68. Pseudonym said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 1:21 am

    I always figured that it was originally a sardonic phrase in the Yiddish style (c.f. "tell me about it" to mean "you couldn't possibly tell me any more about it"), but at some point crossed over into being an idiom. So even if it's not delivered with a tone of voice which indicates irony, that's what it actually means.

  69. Nijma said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    Jerry: I think "hold down the fort" has pretty much replaced "hold the fort" among the people I talk to here in New Mexico
    I haven't heard either version for years. In Chicago we would "watch the store". Maybe a military metaphor that makes it sound like you're embattled is too close to the truth, or incompatible with organizational philosophy, or maybe there's more division of labor between security and service in offices these days. My last three jobs have had separate security personnel for the building.

    Scriptor: In Nijma's examples [asylum, assume, assonance, asset, assimilate, and assassin] the stress is not on the relevant syllable, which would have a bearing on whether the ass is "felt".
    Yes and no. "Assonance" and "asset" I pronounce with the accent on the first syllable, and the others I picked as examples as I would not necessarily pronounce with a schwa, as with other examples I could think of. For anyone who remembers the reruns of The Odd Couple, Felix Unger's spelling of "assume" forever links it with "ass" [link]. ("Never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME.) At any rate, for wods that start with "ass-" I seem to separate the "a" from the following syllable slightly, so I think there is little chance of mistaking the word, and no good reason to avoid words starting with "ass-" [except for "assume" :~) ].

    (That reminds me to ask: is asphalt ever pronounced /ˈaʃfelt/ in America, as it sometimes is elsewhere?)
    Never heard it like that.

    bloix, I would pronounce jasmine, basmati, Muslim, glasnost, and version the same as you (but am not quite certain about "basmati"). I wonder if /z/ is more American and /s/ is more British. Those word came into English from other languages fairly recently–I know the female name "Yasmin" in Arabic is pronounced with /s/, also the word "Islam". Perhaps this reflects some emerging rule for American English.

  70. Scriptor Ignotior said,

    May 27, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Nijma, you're right. I carelessly dismissed all of your examples as not having the stress on ass. But I did not claim that there was an invariant principle in operation; and anyway in assonance, asset, and assassin (second -ass-) the relevant /s/ is followed by a vowel, so they are not as closely comparable to asthma as jasmine and those others are. By the way, for Islam SOED gives /z/ first and /s/ second, with the stress shifting independently. For Asian and related words it gives /ʃ/ first and /ʒ/ second, but it has the reverse preference for equation.

  71. Nijma said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    So, Scriptor, not a difference in ideolect, then. Thanks for the clarification. While I would probably pronounce "Islam" as IZ-lam on the street, when a guest at the mosque I would be more likely to say iss-LAHM, or more accurately, pronounce both syllables with equal stress, as they seem to do in Arabic. I have never been able to have a fruitful discussion about accents on syllables with a speaker of Arabic; they seem just not to have the concept. I suspect that's the basis of the SOED's shifting stress for "Islam".

  72. bloix said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    I was at lunch yesterday with an American lawyer, midwest origin, monolingual, who does extensive work with Arabic-speaking clients, and listening very hard, I noticed that she says ISS-lam and MUZZ-lim.

  73. Dan Asimov said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    I've long been mystified by those who insist "could care less" is illogical, despite the pervasiveness of emphasizing one's meaning by expressing its opposite. ("Right!", "For sure!", "No doubt", to mean "Not at all!" Or "You think?" to mean "Obviously." &c., &c., &c.)

    I remember that when we were eight years old — around 1955 — my cousin from Brooklyn would commonly say not only "I could care less" but also "I could *really* care less!"

    This last version, which I have not seen cited in serious discussions of this idiom but which gets over 7 1/2 million Google hits, is compelling evidence that some "could care less" speakers know full well that they are using irony, even if they don't know the word for it.

    Many who believe the expression "illogical" insist that many of the hoi polloi who use "could care less" couldn't possibly be aware of the subtleties of irony. But even those users who [wouldn't know irony if they saw it walking down the street] know exactly what they mean by the expression, from having heard it used by many others. Just as no one needs to know the etymology of a word to know its meaning and resonance.)

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