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 really couldn’t care less…
Q: Hi AWC, I was telling a friend the other day about my cats. One of them likes to sleep upside down. The other curls into a little ball. Anyway, I was talking about this topic with her for a good hour, maybe two, when she suddenly blurted “I could care less about your cats!”
A: Oh, okay. You clearly crossed a feline with her.
Q: I see what you did there. But after she’d stormed off, it got me thinking.
A: About how you really need to keep chat about your cats to a minimum?
Q: No! What an odd suggestion. No, it got me thinking about the phrase “I could care less”. I mean, I understood her meaning – the slamming door, the screech of a taxi and the roar of a jet engine suggested she wasn’t interested in discussing it further.
A: You’re quite the sleuth…
Q: But isn’t the saying “I ‘COULDN’T’ care less”? Not “I ‘could’ care less”?
A: Yeah, it’s one of those quirks of the English language.
Q: The English language is one giant quirk.
A: The saying “I couldn’t care less” came into prominence around 100 years ago – and stepped up a gear around the mid 20th-century. It’s rather self-explanatory – the speaker is suggesting that there is nothing they care less about.
Q: Sure, that’s easy. But how can the opposite phrase “I could care less” end up meaning the same thing?
A: Yes it’s odd, but it does. This one came along around the 1960s, chiefly in America. One theory was that it had its roots in the sarcasm of Yiddish-English, with the emphasis on the word “care” (“I could care less”) as opposed to the original phrase (“I couldn’t care less”).
Q: Yiddish? Oy vey!
A: Another theory is that it started out as “I suppose I could care less, but I don’t see how”, with the other words dropped, but the sentiment remaining.
Q: It’s just not logical…
A: Ah, but that’s idioms for you. A lot of idioms don’t make logical sense. A great example is “head over heels in love”. When this term first came along many centuries ago, there were also two versions – “head over heels” and “heels over head”.
Q: That’s odd.
A: Not as odd as the fact that we got rid of the one that made the most sense in a lovestruck way (“heels over head”) and were left with a statement that describes what everyone typically experiences in a normal day – being “head over heels”.
Q: So I guess you’re saying that “I could care less” isn’t going anywhere?
A: Yes. However, we’d always recommend using the “couldn’t care less” form of the phrase – just understand that the other one is also accepted and that it means the same thing.
Q: So, would you like to hear more about my cats? I have some great stories about their toilet habits.
A: Ah, um, we’d love to, but – oh wow, is that a dangling participle over there?
Q: What? Where?
A: SLAM. Screeech. Roarrr.