Earlier this week, while advising people to "wear their brown pants" when Obama announced the new federal budget, I offered this comment:
the vast, vast majority of the American public don't understand and frankly probably "could have cared less" in the past when things were going well.Recognizing the awkwardness of the phrase, I put it in quotes and moved on. Mike noticed, and gently took me to task:
"could have cared less" was used when you actually meant "Could NOT have cared less."He's right of course, and I welcome all such comments. But as I looked into the phrase today, I discovered it's not as simple as it appears.
Via Bartleby.com, here is the analysis from The American Heritage® Book of English Usage:
I could care less! you might say sometime in disgust. You might just as easily have said I couldn’t care less and meant the same thing! How can this be? When taken literally, the phrase I could care less means “I care more than I might,” rather than “I don’t care at all.” But the beauty of sarcasm is that it can turn meanings on their head, thus allowing could care less to work as an equivalent for couldn’t care less. Because of its sarcasm, could care less is more informal than its negative counterpart and may be open to misinterpretation when used in writing.The best researched and most extensive discussion of the phrases I could find was at World Wide Words:
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…More at the link. I'll agree with all of the above; English is such an amazingly complex language that one shouldn't need to resort to slang except for effect. I don't share the ethnic heritage noted in the World Wide Words discussion, so my use of the phrase was just the result of rushing to blog 15 items in one day. In my defense, as uberblogger Andrew Sullivan has noted, blogging is "the spontaneous expression of instant thought.”
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 inverted form I could care less was coined in the US and is found only there...
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”…
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…
On the bright side, Mike's pointing out my gaffe has given me the chance to explore the subject and share it as a blogpost in the "things you wouldn't know" category. You learn something every day.
p.s. - I hope the reference to "wearing brown pants" was self-explanatory. If not, there's an appropriate joke about a pirate who wore a red shirt during sea battles...
(image credit here)