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Could care less

When people say I could care less, they usually mean they actually could not care less, or, more precisely, that they don’t care. Considered logically, being able to care less means one does care to some degree, while being unable to care less means one cares very little if at all.

Could care less is seldom heard outside the United States, and commentators from outside North America tend to express bafflement over its existence, but it is so common in the U.S. that it is now a widely accepted idiom, meaning that it does not have to be logical. We know what it means even if the words do not literally convey that meaning. English is full of similarly illogical phrases that add color to the language. Many face resistance at first before eventually gaining acceptance.

This is not to say that the people who grouse over the illogic of could care less are wrong, nor are we saying that the phrase is appropriate in formal writing or that it’s better than couldn’t care less (which is in no danger—it remains the more common expression even in the U.S.). But the phrase is entrenched in the language and isn’t going away, so we might as well get used to hearing it.

Could care less is only somewhat new. Historical Google News searches uncover numerous examples from as long ago as the 1950s. Of course, that could care less is over half a century old doesn’t make it less annoying to those who dislike it, but it does support the idea that the phrase is an established idiom.

Examples

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If we were to read these examples literally, we might think those who “care less” care a lot more than they really do:

I could care less if Charlie Sheen is rushed to the hospital for nearly overdosing on whatever drug he is taking now. [Times and Transcript]

Players see the hunger for acknowledgement, which they interpret as weakness. Tony could care less. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Not having a drop of Irish blood in me, I could care less about the Emerald Isle. [Screen Junkies]

And in contrast, in each of these examples, couldn’t care less literally reflects the writer’s intended meaning:

At the level of semantics, I couldn’t care less what label is applied to economics. [National Review Online]

To be honest, I couldn’t care less what the acting assistant head of Current Affairs said to the assistant acting head of News. [Daily Mail]

But Scott, in his simple, direct manner, makes it clear he couldn’t care less about any of it. [Herald Sun]

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Comments

  1. Seems to me the origin of this extremely annoying grammatical error was likely in teen-slang (“Valley Girls” perhaps?) and was likely originally expressed as “Oh.  Like I could care less”. 

    Dropping the word “like” changed the expression from a self-absorbed expression of apathy (similar to “as if”) to an ignorant self-absorbed expression of apathy. 

    • Pamela D Lloyd says:

      The idiom has been present in American English for more than 50 years.

      • So has ‘irregardless’ and it doesn’t make it correct.

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        • saltwatercb says:

          Ms./Mr.Thylacine,

          I feel that you are missing the distinction: irregardless operates as a self-defeating/double-negative redundancy, whereas “I could care less” does not perform in that capacity, and moreover, delivers a frisson of irony which, I believe, has come to pack more of a wallop than the grammatically correct, “I couldn’t care less.”

          It takes it to the next level, if you will; i.e., the more recent iteration delivers a withering tone that essentially conveys the idea of “I could care less. NOT!” which in essence is somewhat different than the less sardonic impression the traditional/”correct” version presents. The new-fangled version conveys a flippancy which possesses an active antagonism and I think there are many occasions in our culture where that is the more deserving response, compared to the cut and dry dismissal of “I couldn’t care less.”

          That is my honest defense, and I’m sticking with it! And so I remain a thoroughly unrepentant fan of “I could care less.”

          • 12July1947_Clifford_Martin says:

            Saltwatercb, however you try to defend this awful term, it remains for many of us, ignorant usage.
            If I were to be interviewing someone and they used this term, I would mentally reject them, in the same manner that I would if they had egg on their tie or had horrible bitten fingernails.
            But that’s just me.

    • MarilynDHunter says:

      This is an attractive theory. Living in the UK, I only recently became aware of this usage through internet forums. It annoys me. On another subject, I apologise to those tv viewers in the US who are subjected to Simon Cowell’s “over-exaggerate” and “somethink”.

    • It also is likely that the saying was “I couldn’t care less” but was messed up by a generation of kids, probably from a common TV show or something, then it stuck. Sort of like younger saying “flicking someone off” instead of “flipping someone off” or the fact that everyone calls tenner shoes “tennis” shoes now, even though when they are not shoes made for tennis.

  2. reardensteel says:

    Nope. I don’t accept could care less.
    It’s wrong and nonsensical, despite being common.

  3. I have to disagree and side with comedian David Mitchell on this one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw Surely, common usage is not always the best test of acceptability? And common where? Certainly not outside of the United States (that I’m aware of).

    • Roderick says:

      His explanation rests on a false premise that caring starts with a scale at 0 and that there is no possibility you could care less. There always is a possibility of caring less. For instance, if you did not even bother to say it, you would have cared less than if you said it.

  4. MarilynDHunter says:

    Along the same lines, I’ve just come across “…could give a hoot”. We live in strange times.

  5. I could care less what you all think. But only a little less.

  6. The following statement is made at the end of the third paragraph: “…So we might as well get used hearing it.”
    I would think that a grammar site would know when to use the word “to” after the word “used.”

  7. WordFreak says:

    I’m sick of hearing that lazy, ignorant people get to trash our language “acceptably”!! I can’t understand why anyone would want to use a phrase without fully understanding what the heck is actually being said. Grrrrr……

    • Jamal22 says:

      Like “what the heck?”

    • ZootAllures says:

      On the other hand, we all say nonsensical things as a matter of course, mostly without even realising it. For instance, “I don’t think I’ll go to work today” is really a bit silly. What is really meant is, “I think I won’t go to work today”. Not that I have any objection to people saying they are not thinking … it’s probably true.

      • Dell Cousins says:

        What’s the difference between “I don’t think I’ll go to work today” and “I don’t believe I’ll go to work today”? Very little, as far as I’m concerned, and the “believe” version sounds like a sensible statement to me, so I guess that means I have no problem with the “think” version. Both mean “I have little to no intention of going to work today.”

    • I too think that the prevalence of “could care less” is careless, and especially because dropping a “not” reverses the meaning. Other illogical phrases are just quirky in comparison.

  8. Jbakertaylor says:

    Earlier, and far better, is “couldn’t care less”.

  9. Dell Cousins says:

    Sarcasm is an adequate explanation for the nonsensical “I could care less.”

    • The problem is that those who usually use the phrase without “not” do not deliver it with any hint of sarcasm. They are dismissive, as if they couldn’t care less about getting it right.

  10. This has troubled me for years. These Americans seem to use ‘could care less,’ but I couldn’t care less because I don’t like their loud ways.

  11. People don’t seem to remember this, but Ann Landers’ column used to correct and lecture people on this issue. (The original Ann Landers, Eppie Lederer.)

    She claimed that “I couldn’t care less” was a double negative and as such was *never* to be used. She corrected people in this way countless times.

    So blame Ann Landers, if people today still enjoy saying “I could care less.” Eppie could be rather intimidating when she wanted to be. ;)

    • Roderick says:

      Wonderful!! She apparently was ahead of her time!

    • I disagree with Ann. If you say, ‘I couldn’t care less’, you’re essentially saying that you don’t care at all, that you cannot care any less than you do, or that you’ve given away all your ‘cares’, People these days say, ‘he had no more f*cks to give’, or ‘he doesn’t give a f*ck.

  12. I would place the absence of a negative somewhere alongside use of the word “ain’t.” This is one case in which people often know it is grammatically incorrect yet feel it adds the right touch of flavor to their speech.

  13. Um, “it is now a widely accepted idiom,” no, no it is not! Stop letting lazy, poor grammar win out over proper grammar! People outside the US “tend to express bafflement over its existence” because it’s incorrect!

  14. Thank you. Interesting and elucidating short article. It makes me think of just yesterday, speaking to two people on an important subject; while knowing one would say “I could care less” and the other just came up with non-sequitur’s. Finally, realizing that I was too tired to try carry on a discussion with these two people (who I do care about) – I stated I had to go home and take a couple pain killers for my sore back. So many people (today) are just not willing to listen and engage in a true one to one conversation these days.

  15. Williame says:

    “Could care less” isn’t an actual phrase, it’s just a word omission error. It’s been around as long as “I couldn’t care less” has because it’s an easy mistake to make when talking. What I don’t get is why some people latch onto this thing, either to condemn it or defend it. It’s like arguing over a typo.

    My guess is that people who weren’t familiar with the phrase wrote what they heard, instead of just correcting it.

  16. Roderick says:

    Interesting claims and assumptions. I find “I could care less” quite logical and “I couldn’t care less” not only somewhat tongue twisting, but fairly illogical, or better yet untrue. Then about the assumptions made in the entry: I do not see that it is a sound assumption that the two should have an identical meaning. It is rarely the case, in any language, that two phrases that look alike will have a surgically identical meaning. And these two are not an exception, although they are close and thus interchangeable. The latter “couldn’t” is untrue, since, one can always care less — just imagine you do. The former “could” has its inner logic since it houses a secret double negation, because “less” is almost a negation of “more.” “I could care less, but I won’t,” sums it up as to how little I care that I won’t even bother to care less. That’s the logic I find in it, for my own peace of mind. I of course agree that the living language is what ultimately determines what sticks around. If I am a jury member, the two phrases with close, but not identical meaning have their own right to coexist.

    • I completely agree with you. I’ve explained it myself exactly like that. So many people comment and say that people say it because they are lazy and run-of-the-mill, but I use the phrase, and when i say it, i mean it! Also, when I use it, it is, more times than not, in a conversation. if my friend informs me that my ex will be at the party we are attending, i’ll reply “I could care less”. My friend obviously cares, or at least believes I would be concerned about his presence, but i could care less than her and her assumption that i would care in the first place. Or perhaps you and I were meant to go for a walk and it begins to drizzle. You say “I don’t care about the rain, what do you think?” and i say “I could care less about getting a little wet. Let’s go!” it’s all relative. I could care less than you, her, him, them, any and everybody. I could care less than any conventional level of caring the world thinks I should have. Perhaps it’s all the english classes I’ve taken, having to analyze diction, but “i could care less” is just a little more potent than it’s hard and fast counterpart ” i couldn’t care less”. You can delve into it more. Perhaps it’s just my poetic license burning a hole in my pocket. Instead of thinking that “i couldn’t care less” is at 0 and any caring is plus, 1, 15, 1000 etc. It needs to be thought of like a thermometer. 0 degrees isn’t the coldest it can get, while 70 degrees is room temperature. it can always get colder and it can always get hotter. Or maybe a better comparison would be the acknowledgement that okay, you don’t care, that’d be zero. Everyone knows the number 0. but how many numbers are between 0 and 1? i could infinitely care less. so yes, perhaps you don’t have an ounce, a cent, a sliver, a thousandth, of caring, but me? I could care less. similar to falling in love and getting cheated on. in the beginning your love just grew and grew, swelled and swelled. but after the infidelity, you break up. though no matter how hard you try you still love that person. but you start loving them less and less you probably won’t ever truly get over that person, but you’ll move on and love another just as much or even more. it’s strange that people place a baseline for caring but there’s no cap for caring. there’s no, i couldn’t care more, because that would be considered foolish, right? bottom line: of course no one wants language to be butchered and chopped up, but allow people to express themselves using the words they want to. If they have valid points backing them up, who are you to say it’s wrong? language is beautiful and versatile and alive!

  17. keith walker says:

    The American saying “I could care less” is the shortened form of the outdated “I really don’t think I could care less” or “I could care less, if i cared at all.”, with the dropped words being implied.

  18. keith walker says:

    “Head over heels” and “Tell me about it” are expressions that mean the opposite of themselves taken literally, yet I never here people correcting them or being annoyed by them.

    • keith walker says:

      “Have your cake and eat it too” also makes no logical sense unless you reverse the order. Because you can’t eat your cake and have it too, but you can have your cake and eat it too.

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