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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I scream

Americans! Take note.

When you do not care one way or the other, the phrase you are searching for is, "I couldn't care less about..." Let's use a worked example. You're not fond of ice-cream and you don't want to go to your friend's house. Your friend says that if you come over to her house, you can have ice-cream. Your reply should be, "I couldn't care less about ice-cream." In this instance, as in every instance, "couldn't" is a contraction of "could not". This means - roughly translated - "I could not care less about ice-cream." It is physically impossible to care less about ice-cream. You don't care at all.

Americans, you always seem to say, "I could care less about ice-cream". Whilst this may be symbolic of an over-fed, over-sugared nation, if you genuinely care not for our creamy, icy friend, you are unfortunately substanially grammatically weak. Your phrase, "I could care less about ice-cream" means, "I do care about ice-cream enough to be able to care less about it. Ergo, it is possible for me to care less about ice-cream, therefore I don't dislike ice-cream all that much."

This makes no sense. Go away and think about what you've done. And next time, don't be so rude to your friend who was inviting you over. She might have had chocolate too.


Sara said...

This has been bugging me for over a decade now, so thank you for bringing it to light! There are many phrases Americans just don't use correctly. Unfortuately, when I've tried to correct my friends they get rather offended. I tell them that I'm just trying to help them speak proper English, to which they respond... "You're not in England anymore". Grrrr!!!

Anonymous said...

The form "I could care less" has provoked a vast amount of comment and criticism in the past thirty years or so. Few people have had a kind word for it, and many have been vehemently opposed to it (William and Mary Morris, for example, in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, back in 1975, called it “an ignorant debasement of language”, which seems much too powerful a condemnation). Writers are less inclined to abuse it these days, perhaps because Americans have had time to get used to it.

A bit of history first: the original expression, of course, was I couldn’t care less, meaning “it is impossible for me to have less interest or concern in this matter, since I am already utterly indifferent”. It is originally British. The first record of it in print I know of is in 1946, as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps, recording his experiences in Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II. By then it had clearly become sufficiently well known that he could rely on its being recognised. It seems to have reached the US some time in the 1950s and to have become popular in the latter part of that decade. The inverted form I could care less was coined in the US and is found only there. It may have begun to be used in the early 1960s, though it turns up in a written form only in 1966.

Why it lost its negative has been much discussed. It’s clear that the process is different from the shift in meaning that took place with cheap at half the price. In that case, the inversion was due to a mistaken interpretation of its meaning, as has happened, for example, with beg the question.

In these cases people have tried to apply logic, and it has failed them. Attempts to be logical about I could care less also fail. Taken literally, if one could care less, then one must care at least a little, which is obviously the opposite of what is meant. It is so clearly logical nonsense that to condemn it for being so (as some commentators have done) misses the point. The intent is obviously sarcastic — the speaker is really saying, “As if there was something in the world that I care less about”.

However, this doesn’t explain how it came about in the first place. Something caused the negative to vanish even while the original form of the expression was still very much in vogue and available for comparison. Stephen Pinker, in The Language Instinct, points out that the pattern of intonation in the two versions is very different.

There’s a close link between the stress pattern of I could care less and the kind that appears in certain sarcastic or self-deprecatory phrases that are associated with the Yiddish heritage and (especially) New York Jewish speech. Perhaps the best known is I should be so lucky!, in which the real sense is often “I have no hope of being so lucky”, a closely similar stress pattern with the same sarcastic inversion of meaning. There’s no evidence to suggest that I could care less came directly from Yiddish, but the similarity is suggestive. There are other American expressions that have a similar sarcastic inversion of apparent sense, such as Tell me about it!, which usually means “Don’t tell me about it, because I know all about it already”. These may come from similar sources.

So it’s actually a very interesting linguistic development. But it is still regarded as slangy, and also has some social class stigma attached. And because it is hard to be sarcastic in writing, it loses its force when put on paper and just ends up looking stupid. In such cases, the older form, while still rather colloquial, at least will communicate your meaning — at least to those who really could care less.

Sara said...

Dear Anon,
Americans who can use sarcasm properly are few and far between, therefore, I believe it's clearly a misunderstanding and mis-use of term "I couldn't care less".

Thank you and good night!

Laura said...

A pointless argument about semantics. My favourite sort. (Yes, "favourite" with a "u".)

Anonymous, I rather think you owe something to Michael Quinion at http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ico1.htm

L x

Anonymous said...

We had this debate at work. Before you plogged about it, in fact, so there. We came to the conclusion that the American version was an incomplete sentence - "I _could_ care less about it, but I choose not to." - i.e. "I can't even be bothered to care less about it." making it even stronger than the UK version, wherein we confirm that we could not, in fact, care less, even if we tried really, really hard.