Q&A: “I could care less” vs “I couldn’t care less” – which one?

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.

 


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