Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I could have sworn this one was in the database already, but I can’t find it.
The original phrase is “I couldn’t care less”, meaning “I can’t possibly care less than I do now, because I already don’t care at all”.
“Honestly, I couldn’t care less about it. If the banner was already up there, it wouldn’t bother me,” said defenceman Andrew Ference. (From http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Columnists/Sp … 0-sun.html)
The modified version is “I could care less”. Some people dismiss it as an incorrect hearing of the original, and a phrase that people parrot without thinking about whether it makes sense. Others maintain that they know what it means, and it’s used in a sarcastic sense; the literal meaning is the opposite of what’s meant.
“I could care less about marijuana laws. I have no desire at all to rally behind something like people that want to smoke herb.” (From http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quote … 44977.html)
Counting Google hits is pointless, because so many people are discussing “I could care less” in the context of whether it’s an error or a colloquialism that it skews the results.
It’s not in the Database as far as I know, but you may be thinking of jacidbazz’s entry in Contribute on 11-15-2005. The Language Log linguists have discussed this and related phrases a number of times—the last time was (I think) within the last couple of weeks.
COULDN’T and COULD care less
I think the trouble is that unless one is clearly an historical antecedent of the other, they both make good sense.
To say “I COULDN’T care less” is to place your estimation of the issue in question at the true end of the spectrum. I’m presupposing a spectrum which begins, say, with a fixed point at the left and continues to another at the right. “Couldn’t care less” places you directly on the left fixed point, having left no room for any further discussion, for anything about which you might ever care less.
To say “I COULD care less” doesn’t put you as drastically over toward the left fixed point, but the argument is: in so doing, does that make your disdain for the issue less vituperative and more literal?
It is a well-documented idea that in order completely to negate an idea and to stand wholly against it, one must be emotionally invested in it. For instance, if you were to loathe eggplants with every fiber of your being, it wouldn’t be possible to say you “couldn’t care less,” because that devil-may-care flippancy belies your vehemence: in fact, you care a great deal! It might, however, be more apropos to say that you “could care less” about eggplants if you wanted to leave room for bellybutton lint and troglodytes, thereby placing eggplants ranklessly among such trivialities.
The ultimate question is whether emotional investiture connotes caring, and I would propose that it does. Therefore, the most accurate way to express disdain is to confess, that in fact, it would be possible for me to care even less. You and your eggplants are not even important enough to rate my diametrical opposition.
Well, I know this topic has been chewed over ad nauseam, but I’m curious to know whether anyone shares an impression of mine—that “I could care less” is a fossilized deliberate malapropism, of the sort attributed to Samuel Goldwyn in the ‘thirties (“Deal me out,” “An oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on”), then to Yogi Berra . . . “Deal me out” originally struck people as absurd and funny; now it’s part of the language. A similar example might be “close but no cigar,” which has long survived the carney attractions that gave rise to it. My recollection is that “I could care less,” when I first heard it in the ‘sixties, was understood to be humorously self-contradictory. Then it took on a life of its own. On this view, elaborate explanations that attempt to make sense of the phrase are beside the point.
Does anyone know when “I could care less” is first attested, and whether it was originally attributed to a particular Mr. Malaprop?
On a related point: I’m fascinated by “fossilized” survivals in people’s idiolects (their personal speech ways.) My father always said of some additional benefit arising from a situation that it was a “Lucky Strike extra”—obviously from the cigarettes, although exactly what a “Lucky Strike” extra might be I have never known. My point is that I have continued to use this expression all my life, although I have never heard it in anyone else’s mouth or seen it in print.
I’ll bet everyone has idiosyncratic expressions like this, and it would be fun to collect them.
Interestingly, “couldn’t care less” is younger than I expected. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (the source of all the following—pp. 300-1) says the first known citation of “couldn’t care less” is from (apparently) a transcription of a report by a BBC war correspondent on Mar. 24, 1945; Eric Partridge claims that the phrase arose around 1940. It may have been brought to the US by soldiers returning home, but the earliest American print citation appears in a letter written by Flannery O’Connor in 1958.
The editors of the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975) report getting letters on the phrase “could care less” as early as 1960, but the first print citation appears to date from 1966—the MWDoEU doesn’t name the publication or author.
So, there are three things here relevant to the discussion. Both phrases are of fairly recent origin, though “couldn’t” is almost certainly older. There appears to be no Mr. or Ms. Malaprop responsible for “could.” And the latter phrase seems to have developed fairly quickly after the introduction of the former.
I’m not sure this is an eggcorn, within the meaning of the act. It’s a syntactic construction that deviates from negative polarity norms, but it’s not a misconstrual of any root, the way ‘acorn’ is misconstrued as ‘eggcorn’. In any event, if you’re interested in it, there are a number of posts on ‘could care less’ at Language Log, for instance http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/language … 02253.html
I live in New Zealand and never hear ‘could care less’. I’ve not read it in local publications nor in any Australian publications available here.
The only time I see it written is in on-line forums. The people using it seem to be mostly based in the USA. I say mostly, because you can’t always determine a posters place of origin.
I’d be interested to see if there really is a geographical difference in its usage.
Yeah, this seems to be an American thing—though I really don’t understand why. The Wikipedia article on differences between British and American speech doesn’t discuss New Zealand, but it does claim that the “could” form of the expression isn’t used in Britain:
Both British English and American English use the expression “I couldn’t care less” to mean the speaker does not care at all. In American English, the phrase “I could care less” (without the “n’t”) is synonymous with this in casual usage. Intonation no longer reflects the originally sarcastic nature of this variant, which is not idiomatic in British English and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense to an indication that the speaker does care.
Here’s the URL for the Wikipedia article:
It’d be useful to know whether any Eggcorn Database readers who are speakers of British English can confirm the claim made there.
Interestingly, New Zealand came up in one of the Language Log discussions of “could care less.” In a post from July 16, 2004, Mark Liberman estimated that “I could care less” was five times as common in the US as “I couldn’t care less.” In one corpus of transcriptions of American speech, the ratio seemed to approach parity, but a closer inspection showed that the New Zealanders who had transcribed the corpus tended to “correct” instances of could care less to couldn’t care less. If the “could” form of the expression is virtually unknown in New Zealand, that would certainly explain the problem – the transcribers unconsciously altered the data to make it conform to their expectations.
For the record, here’s what Mark Liberman wrote:
My current guess is that the ratio is about 5 to 1. As I pointed out earlier, “could care less” occurs in the Switchboard corpus and the American-transcribed portion of a (current, as yet unpublished) collection 16 times, to just one occurrence of “couldn’t care less”. A large part of the current collection was transcribed in New Zealand; in this portion, “could care less” occurs 37 times, versus 32 (alleged) instances of “couldn’t care less”. However, I’ve checked 8 of the 32 “couldn’t care less” phrases, and 5 of the 8 are wrongly transcribed. No doubt the New Zealanders heard “couldn’t care less” in those cases, but it’s plain that the American said “could care less.” Applying a similar correction to the rest of the set, we get 85% “could care less” overall in these conversations (73 vs. 13).
The whole post can be found here:
I believe “could care less” is from the Lower East Side in New York City. It originally was a question, and it originally was cynical or sarcastic. Find Jewish comedians’ routines, maybe on old Ed Sullivan shows. Hear these people ask, “Oy couwd ca-ah less….?”
Originally, they knew they were referencing, “I couldN’T care less.” But the question mark went away. So our question is: Why has this illogical expression survived? I could care. I really could.
I just put it down to American drawled pronunciation that lost the n’t between the two hard sounds of the d and c.
‘Could care less’ is unheard in the UK, but I expect it will be imported soon, along with everything else.
Yes, mr_sloane, you’re entirely right—we Yanks drawl negative particles into oblivion all the time. Life in the States is rendered all the more exciting by the fact that statements like “I love you,” “I will pay you Friday,” and “Iraq is stockpiling WMDs!” often imply their opposites. Sure, it’s occasionally confusing, but we would have it any other way.
I’m actually really glad to find out that “could care less” at least started out being used knowingly because, for my own messed up reasons, whenever I hear it (and this is only ever on U.S. tv shows!) I practically tic from irritation.
I’m not an uptight grammar-geek, as such. I was brought up by a father who actually used to correct other people’s children’s grammar in the supermarket, (argh!) so I naturally rebelled against that nonsense all my life. On the other hand I’m a total pedant about meaning. So while I thought that “could care less” was a result of either lazy speech or lazy thinking, it seriously annoyed me. I’m a born and bred South Londoner, and I routinely drop every syllable I can get away with dropping, but never at the expense of meaning. It drove me crazy that anyone would exchange something so important for such a tiny amount of linguistic convenience.
I know this makes me sound like a really horrible person, but my mother and sister are both quite severely dyslexic and I remember being totally wound up, to the point of throwing a strop and refusing to talk to them, because of their (involuntary) inversions of meaning, problems with double-negatives, and so on when I was as young as eight or nine. Obviously I’ve mellowed a lot since then, but to a certain extent, it’s always something I have to make a conscious effort to be cool about!
Excuse the rant, and thanks folks, for finally removing that particular irritation from my pathetically pedantic life.
Last edited by the.worstest (2006-10-09 01:56:07)