Q&A: “Couldn’t care less” vs “could care less”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have “care less” whispers…

Q: Hi AWC, I’m having an argument with my friend about a particular saying. I think it’s “couldn’t care less” and she says it’s “could care less”. Can you help?

A: We couldn’t care less.

Q: Aha I knew it!

A: That’s right. We could care less about your situation.

Q: Wait. What are you doing?

A: We’re pointing out that, in certain circumstances, BOTH of these informal phrases have become acceptable these days and both mean exactly the same thing.

Q: B-b-but they’re OPPOSITES. One literally says “could” and the other “could not”!?

A: Ain’t English fun?

Q: Ugh. This makes no sense.

A:  Yeah, this is a particular issue that has made several people cranky over the years. In fact, if there were a Museum of Illogical Phrases, this giant bone of contention would be on display in the foyer.

Q: That’s a rather elaborate scenario to express your point, but okay.

A: Okay, well let’s take a look at how we ended up with this situation. Some time in the early 20th century, the British coined the original phrase – “couldn’t care less”.

Q: As I always thought!

A: That’s right. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the phrase as “used to indicate that one is not at all concerned about or interested in something.”

Q: Exactly. You are incapable of caring less about something!

A: Sure, and that was all good – with printed proof of its usage many times prior to the 1940s. But it was after World War II (in the late ‘40s) when it appears to have made its way to America – perhaps via returning soldiers who presumably couldn’t care less about fighting anymore.

Q: And let me guess, that’s where things went sideways?

A: Yep. The phrase gained popularity quickly throughout the US, but then did something which has confused and confounded academics for decades since. 

Q: Did it start a cult?

A: Um no. It sprouted the variant, “could care less” – almost a sarcastic take on the original, from a nation not usually into sarcasm. Evidence shows this taking hold in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Q: But why? There was a perfectly good – and logical – phrase right there. Why mess with it?

A: Exactly. But mess with it they did. Some theorised that it was part of the usual American simplification of things; that it was shorter and sounded better as “could”. They certainly are a nation with a history of cutting linguistic corners.

Q: So it’s only Americans who “could care less”?

A: Yeah, it seems to be primarily an American thing. Although it should be noted that it’s not without precedent. World Wide Words points out that other phrases like “I should be so lucky” (no hope of being so lucky) or “tell me about it!” (when you already know about it and don’t actually want to be told) also use this back-to-front style – originating from self-deprecating Yiddish phrases in New York.

Q: Hmmm yeah. Another I have heard in recent times is “it’s been a minute” when they mean it’s actually been a long time!

A: Nice one. So, yeah, it seems to be a common thing in America. And in this particular case, it has caused much hand-wringing from the British for more than half a century.

Q: So, to recap, “couldn’t care less” is both the original and CORRECT usage, right?

A: Yes – it’s the one that you can safely use anywhere on the planet without eliciting rude stares from boffins who couldn’t care less about the phrase, “could care less”.

Q: Nice!

A: But remember that English is a living, breathing language. And like all living, breathing things, it sometimes makes silly choices – such as giving rise to “could care less” as meaning the exact same thing… 

Q: Hmmmph. Silly Americans.

A: Well, as Merriam-Webster points out, just be glad it’s not “could care fewer”!

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