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June 10, 2005 9:29 PM   Subscribe

Why do Americans use the expression "I could care less" Surely it's "I could NOT care less"
posted by johnny7 to Writing & Language (67 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know if you are unaware of this, or whether it's because of this that you ask, but elsewhere in the world, the expression is indeed "I couldn't care less".
posted by -harlequin- at 9:36 PM on June 10, 2005


Plenty of Americans (*cough*myself included*cough*) say "I couldn't care less." Some people just get the saying wrong.
posted by scody at 9:39 PM on June 10, 2005


Steven Pinker addresses this in The Language Instinct, saying it's used because the emphasis used when saying "I could care less" is preferable to saying "I could not care less" or "I couldn't care less". (In the former the emphasis is on "care", while in the latter it's on "couldn't")

He claims it's the same reason "Abso-fucking-lutely" is _always_ used instead of "Absolut-fucking-ly" or some other variation.
posted by null terminated at 9:39 PM on June 10, 2005


Plenty of americans say "I couldn't care less", too. I would imagine the non-negated version came into being largely because it was easier to say, and could be understood as short for "I could (theoretically) care less, but not by much". To say "I couldn't care less" might sound like a serious commitment - this is literally the thing about which I care absolutely least - while "I could care less" might come off as more indifferent. It could be seen as the difference between saying "I absolutely do not care at all" and "meh."
posted by mdn at 9:41 PM on June 10, 2005


If you place primary stress on the 'could' in the American version and 'less' in the UK version, then you get an ironic/sarcastic dig in the first instance and a punch on the nose in the second. If you wish to attribute this to any deep cultural difference, feel free.

On preview, Pinker doesn't seem to account for the UK version; if it is similar to 'absofuckinglutely', why would there be variation between the two dialects?
posted by TimothyMason at 9:45 PM on June 10, 2005


Re mdn's comments - pop quiz then: Does the intended meaning of "I could care less" seem to differ from "I couldn't care less"?
I know for a fact that some people mean "I couldn't care less" and sometimes even have difficulty grasping that that is not what they are saying literally, but how common is it for "I could care less" to be meant as "meh"? I think I've come across that too, but it can be hard to tell :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:45 PM on June 10, 2005


TimothyMason: Good point, he doesn't account for the UK version (at least as far as I can remember). He directly claimed that the "better sound" of the incorrect version was more appealing to people than actually being correct. He didn't mention the sarcasm angle.
posted by null terminated at 9:47 PM on June 10, 2005


I don't hear a difference between the "could" and "couldn't" versions. The "could" version may have begun as sarcasm (like "That will teach you to take your cat on a roller coaster," where the "not" is sarcastically omitted), but now it's just an idiom, not really prone to logic.
posted by words1 at 9:49 PM on June 10, 2005


That's always bugged me, too. My initial assumption was always that it's an attitude of sarcasm--as in "Oh, like I could care less."--but I'm no longer convinced that's the case. That could be giving too much credit to the collective linguistic subconscious. Every time I've seen it mentioned in a book of usage, it's been explained as simply "lazy tongue" (or whatever the correct linguistic term is).

Basically, the assumption is that American English speakers collectively decided not to bother pronouncing the extra negating syllable, just like English speakers in general changed "a napron" to "an apron", or the singular "pease", like "pease porridge", to "pea"/"peas". (OK, maybe "pease" was collective, but you know what I mean.)
posted by LairBob at 9:49 PM on June 10, 2005


For the same reason Americans say things like "for all intensive purposes..." or "nuke-ya-ler".
posted by DuoJet at 10:02 PM on June 10, 2005


or "sucking it up" as an expression of doing poorly...

or "fucking A!" as a negative term... though I'm repeatedly assured it can go either way.
posted by ODiV at 10:07 PM on June 10, 2005


So don't I. I like messin' w/yous guys and (supposably) could care less about grammar...

The mistakes remind me of my youth/locale and they're funner to say.
posted by dinah at 10:12 PM on June 10, 2005


As a speaker of American English, I differentiate between "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less."

When I say, "I could care less." I'm expressing an indifference. It's neutral and only slightly and casually dismissive.

When I say "I couldn't care less." I'm expressing exactly that. Total disinterest and utter dismissiveness. I use it to actually mean that I care so little, I'm caring as little as I possibly can.

Why do other people use it incorrectly? Because they're the same people who say "libaery" in reference to a place where you can borrow books.
posted by Jon-o at 10:31 PM on June 10, 2005


Jon-o, it's not a bug, it's a feature? Sure you're not using vocal tone to convey that difference? How can you be certain when "other people" are using it incorrectly?

Seems like a rather fine distinction for casual speech.
posted by words1 at 10:36 PM on June 10, 2005


As said above, I think it is a sarcastic remark when said as "I could care less".

I'm so convinced that I'm right, I'll just continue to think that everyone else is wrong :-)
posted by Sonic_Molson at 10:48 PM on June 10, 2005


That phrase, "I could care less", has always irked me, but then I grind my teeth every time I hear someone say they're "shaken, not stirred."
posted by maryh at 10:55 PM on June 10, 2005


<groan>

I'll throw in another for lazy language (props to DuoJet). People can, and as whole - tend to be, stupid/lazy.

ODiV re: Sucking it up

?! Always thought it was about sucking the gut in, as in "man up, nancy boy." I can see how it could mean having had been retarded at a certain task...

I always thought that people in Vancouver, BC tended to have a fairly precise way of enunciating English but I've been appalled at how many of the lower-socio-economic upbrought kids (and the the debt-caused "rich") are slurring English into some pasty mealy-mouthed slurry. Man, some of those kids are hot but I could.not.date, or even take seriously, anyone who spoke like that.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 11:50 PM on June 10, 2005


I think I may have found a good little answer in a book preview linked over at Metachat:

"Human beings...are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium expression for their society...The fact of the matter is that the "real world" is, to a large extent, unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group....We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation." --Edward Sapir, The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language
posted by dinah at 11:52 PM on June 10, 2005


Either way, it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

As are most things, come to think of it. Except maybe a poke in the eye with a blunt stick...

(Just another one of those sayings which seems to be done both ways...)
posted by Pinback at 12:03 AM on June 11, 2005


"I could care less" is incorrect. It implies that you care, at least to some extent.

The correct term is " I could not care less" which rightfully implies that the topic is absofuckinglutely not worth your time and/or attention.

Next question?
posted by wsg at 12:31 AM on June 11, 2005


I could care less really about how I say it.
posted by angry modem at 2:21 AM on June 11, 2005


The American Heritage Book of English Usage claims that "could care less" is an example of sarcasm. This begs the question as to why the speaker didn't say something a little less subtle like "I really care!"

For all intensive purposes, "I could care less" is just an idiom and that is part of English usage now. The alt.usage.english FAQ lists some other examples of common idioms that say the opposite of what they mean. Probably best to avoid it in formal writing, but I could care less if someone says it in an informal context.
posted by grouse at 3:20 AM on June 11, 2005


For the same reason Americans say things like "for all intensive purposes..." or "nuke-ya-ler".
posted by DuoJet

I am an American, and I do not say those things. Ever.

or "sucking it up" as an expression of doing poorly...

or "fucking A!" as a negative term... though I'm repeatedly assured it can go either way.

posted by ODiV

Sucking up is what purple porpoise said it is. I have never heard it used to mean doing poorly.

Fucking-A is an affirmation, like "Word!"

Youse kids are abso-fucking-lutely ruining the language. Get off my lawn!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:10 AM on June 11, 2005


I'm amazed at people who are apologists for "I could care less". It's a lazy, dumbass construct that takes hold due to its frequent usage.
And the usual suspects:
Irregardless .ne. {any word}
Noisome .ne. Noisy
Toothsome .ne. (Toothy .or. Tasty)
It goes on and on and on.
And the worst...the bastardization of "...fully" adverbs.
We no longer think in language, we just use it.
I so miss Bill Safire.
posted by nj_subgenius at 5:53 AM on June 11, 2005


Could it be a result of the relatively high illiteracy rates in the US? It seems to me that this kind of mistake (along with ‘intensive purposes’ and ‘nukyuler’) cannot be made by people who are well-read. If you’ve never seen a phrase in print, however, it would be easy to mishear and repeat incorrectly.
posted by Zetetics at 6:46 AM on June 11, 2005


I never heard "I could care less" until I moved to the South, and even here, I have only heard the phrase used by blacks and rednecks, women for the most part.
posted by mischief at 6:58 AM on June 11, 2005


I'm amazed at people who are apologists for "I could care less".

And I'm amazed at people who 1) are so concerned about what other people say (it reminds me of those conservatives who are concerned that letting gay people marry will somehow ruin heterosexual marriage) and 2) are so convinced they know what's "right." Unless you've taken a linguistics course, you have zero idea how language works and are operating exclusively on prejudice and lazy thinking. Let me show you how you can end up if you continue on this path. I had a co-worker once who was obsessed with "correct English" -- even more than the average copy editor, which is what we both were. He kept telling me some expression or other "wasn't logical." When he said this about double negatives, I said "You know, in French, double negatives are the normal way to express a negative," and he responded: "Then the French are wrong." The French are wrong. The entire French language is a mistake. That's the kind of insanity you can fall into if you follow this approach. I beg of you, stop now while there's still time!

And why do you miss that dunderhead Safire? He's still around, more's the pity, misleading thousands every Sunday.

It seems to me that this kind of mistake... cannot be made by people who are well-read.

Oh, give me a break. I say "I could care less," and I'll match my reading list against yours any day.

Language isn't logical, folks. Give it up.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on June 11, 2005


Yeah. Their's no good reason they're should be rules is their?
posted by Thorzdad at 7:36 AM on June 11, 2005


Well, I'm a UKer, and I say "I could care less" - not often, to be sure, but I do. And like Jon-o, it has a subtly different meaning to "I couldn't care less" - it's not as completely dismissive, but still indicates that the subject at hand really needs to pull its socks up to sustain my interest.

I don't see it as being necessarily sarcastic - rather, there's an unspoken missing portion: "I could care less, but it wouldn't be easy."


Seems like a rather fine distinction for casual speech.


Casual speech is all about fine distinctions and subtle vocal inflections. Have you ever listened to how people talk? How incredibly complex a "casual" mode of communication has to be to allow for such a huge variety of different inflections on (to pick a classic example) a one-syllable word like "dude", each with a different unspoken meaning that is immediately comprehensible to the listener? On the contrary, it's formal speech where factors like that are supposed to be removed. Casual speech lives and breathes such fine distinctions.
posted by flashboy at 7:48 AM on June 11, 2005


I've lived in the south most of my life, and completely disagree with mischief. Folks tend to use the "I could care less" construction pretty often but it's by no means limited to black people, rednecks, or women.
posted by naomi at 8:05 AM on June 11, 2005


I could care less, but that would take a concerted effort on my part....
posted by jaded at 8:07 AM on June 11, 2005


Gosh languagehat, I was just complaining about how normative behavior is becoming a substitute for thinking.

Your complaint comes off as the pedantic language douchery, which is what you seemed to be bitching about in the first place.

I just think that proper usage is a rough indicator of how much people are thinking. It's not really accurate or even good, it's what I (and a diminishing number of people it seems) happen to use.
posted by nj_subgenius at 8:07 AM on June 11, 2005


hm. scratch {the} in front of pedantic. So sorry.
posted by nj_subgenius at 8:09 AM on June 11, 2005


Please, where can I find proper usage documented?
posted by mendel at 8:35 AM on June 11, 2005


languagehat writes "Unless you've taken a linguistics course, you have zero idea how language works"
Yes, I'm sure I'm taking you out of context here, but that's like saying if you don't have a medical degree you can't have any idea about how the heart pumps. LH - we all use language and we're all entitled to our 2c input, particularly when it has to do with common usage.

I too was interested in this question because I've only seen the phrase here at MeFi. To me, and it seems at least some of the answers here bear this out, it seems like "I could care less" is pure sarcasm, while the phrase with which I have more familiarity, "I couldn't care less" is always said in anger. I realize sarcasm and anger overlap but in my reading of its usage in MeFi, "I could care less" never seems to be angry per se.
But I've only read it and don't have the added bonus (to my knowledge) of having heard the subtlties to which flashboy alludes.
/outsider's perspective rant
posted by peacay at 8:52 AM on June 11, 2005


I couldn't/could not care less is just hard to say. Like it or not, most language evolution is based on what's easy to say, strictly in terms of the position of your mouth and lips.

And, yeah, it's sarcastic. Partly because it's hard to say, "I could NOT care less" is way too negative and forceful for what is, after all, an expression of indifference.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:27 AM on June 11, 2005


meant to say tongue and lips there -- shouldn't keep posting here first thing in the morning and late at night.
posted by dagnyscott at 9:28 AM on June 11, 2005


I could care less either means you have some caring about the situation and therefore have the ability to care less, so the situation is actually somewhat important to you. Or it means you could care less, but your total disinterest in the subject means you don't bother to.

I could not care less either means you are at the absolute base of caring about the situation, and so are showing total disinterest in the situation. Or it means you care about the situation so much that caring less about it would be damaging to you in some way.

Both terms are equally vague and interchangeable. Fortunately, we use both of them only in their negative sense, so everyone understands each other.
posted by shepd at 9:30 AM on June 11, 2005


Toothsome .ne. (Toothy .or. Tasty)

Um, well, the primary meaning is "Delicious; luscious" according to the AHED and "extremely pleasing to the sense of taste" according to WordNet. "Temptingly tasty" according to the Concise OED that comes with Mac OS X. So yeah, it means "tasty" first and foremost.
posted by kindall at 9:31 AM on June 11, 2005


Hmmmm. Reset.
posted by nj_subgenius at 9:43 AM on June 11, 2005


Language isn't logical, folks.

It is if you're three years old.
posted by TimothyMason at 10:09 AM on June 11, 2005


"I could care less" is incorrect. It implies that you care, at least to some extent.

...

I'm amazed at people who are apologists for "I could care less". It's a lazy, dumbass construct that takes hold due to its frequent usage.

These two quotes involve exactly the same logic that people mocking African American English use to complain about double negation ("I don't know nothing", vs. Standard English "I don't know anything".) Of course, people who make complaints are just idiots - AAE is a different dialect with a different system of negation, looking roughly like negation in a lot of romance languages, etc.

There are lots of nonsensical idiomatic expressions (one whose meaning isn't the sum of its parts) in any dialect of English. Here's one list. I challenge you to explain all of them on a logical basis. I'm willing to bet that "could care less" has become an idiomatic expression in some American dialects (including mine).

Yes, I'm sure I'm taking you out of context here, but that's like saying if you don't have a medical degree you can't have any idea about how the heart pumps. LH - we all use language and we're all entitled to our 2c input, particularly when it has to do with common usage.

Actually, it's like saying if you've never learned anything at all about the heart you can't have any idea about how the heart pumps. Learning _nothing at all_ is the state the typical person who hasn't taken a linguistics course. Also, note that most people in this thread are trying to talk about how language _should_ work, not how it does. These are very different things, and most of the normative statements in this thread are just ridiculously at odds with how language does work. A better analogy might be people feeling entitled to say how the economy should work just because they buy stuff every once in a while.
posted by advil at 10:12 AM on June 11, 2005


As far as I can tell, "I could care less" is a single token in most person's minds. That is, somewhere along the way they heard it, and now repeat the entire phrase to mean "I don't give a flying fuck about this."

So, treat it as a single token, and it's not hard to see where it came from: "I couldn't care less"->"I couldn' care less" (standard American drop of the 't' in the contraction before a consonant)->"I could care less."

Personally, it irritates me to hear it. But, what am I gonna do? Until they hire me as the US Grammar Czar, I think I'm just going to continue wincing at it, and then ignoring it.
posted by Netzapper at 10:18 AM on June 11, 2005


Fucking-A is an affirmation, like "Word!"

Not exactly -- there's not the same component of agreement. More "Holy Shit, that's big/ dangerous/ bad-ass/ whatever."

When someone suggests that you take off and nuke the site from orbit (it's the only way to be sure) and you reply "fuckin-a!," you're not necessarily agreeing with the proposal, you're marveling at its ballsiness.

Me, I agree with null terminated and dagny -- people say "I could care less" because it flows more easily from the mouth and has a "better" rhythm. There's no difference in meaning between could-care-less and couldn't-care-less, and if you intend one it's going to be lost on most listeners.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:30 AM on June 11, 2005


LanguageLog talked about this a while ago.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:32 AM on June 11, 2005


I'm gonna have to start using "absolute-fucking-ly" now.

Learning _nothing at all_ is the state the typical person who hasn't taken a linguistics course.

oh please. Linguistics is an observational science. People can observe and think about language without special equipment or access to corpses, so language is probably more accessible than medicine. Any user of language can address what does or doesn't make sense, because as you descriptivists yourself suggest, it's the users of language who determine what makes sense.

Language is not logical insofar as the users of the language are not logical, and it's true that human beings are not vulcans. We make sense of things based on context, tone, familiarity and a variety of other factors. In general, we're not too confused by logical inconsistencies, but that doesn't necessitate that it's therefore completely unreasonable to ever notice inconsistencies. Speakers and writers vary in skill; it is clear that some people are capable of greater clarity and articulation in prose than others. Perhaps being mindful of the logic and consistency of word use is beneficial towards increasing one's capacity to communicate intelligibly.

In any case, I certainly don't see why word use without self-awareness is always 'right' while word use self-consciously altered to better match the intended meaning is by definition 'wrong.' Can't it just be another layer of linguistic evolution?
posted by mdn at 10:32 AM on June 11, 2005


I think the line between pointless pedantry and useful criticism falls where there is confusion about the intended meaning. I once got into a fight with a classmate when she said "so don't I" and meant "so do I", I'd never heard that useage and I thought she was calling me a liar. In hindsight I can laugh about it, but I'd bet the same confused screaming match could arise with use of the double negative or "could care less".
posted by cali at 11:20 AM on June 11, 2005


I agree with mdn. And I've never heard anyone use "I could care less" as though it had any difference in meaning from "I couldn't care less." They always mean that they don't care at all, but one way or another they've gotten into the habit of saying "could." I've definitely never encountered anyone who would use both of these expressions and distinguish between them.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:26 AM on June 11, 2005


Thanks, advil. You saved me some trouble.

People can observe and think about language without special equipment or access to corpses, so language is probably more accessible than medicine.

Sure, language is more accessible, but that doesn't mean it's more understandable. Your skin is accessible too; do you think you could discuss it in a manner that wouldn't have a doctor doubled over in laughter? Language is incredibly subtle and complex, and the ability to speak it no more gives you the ability to understand how it works than the possession of skin gives you medical information. I know it's useless trying to convince you of this, but if you'd take a course or read a book you'd figure it out pretty fast. (Note to peacay: "take a course" does not equal "have a medical degree" -- we're not talking years of hard toil, just a basic introduction. It's not that hard, and it's a disgrace that so few people are exposed to it.)

Fucking-A is an affirmation, like "Word!"
Not exactly -- there's not the same component of agreement.


There is when I use it; it means exactly the same thing as "damn right!"

On preview:

I agree with mdn.

I'm sure you do. You've never taken a course either, right? But you know all about it, because you can talk.
posted by languagehat at 11:30 AM on June 11, 2005


This is how I think of it:

"I could care less" implies "I could care less than you care" or "I care less than you're asking me to care."

"I couldn't care less" implies "There is nothing in heaven or on earth that I care less about than what you're asking me to care about."

"I couldn't possibly care less" implies "If I put my utmost effort into caring less about the subject at hand than I already care about it, I would fail, because I care so little about it already."

Anyway, I think that I usually say "I couldn't care less," and I'm an American.
posted by bingo at 11:56 AM on June 11, 2005


languagehat, you are a metaprescriptivist. Judging peoples' language, and judging people by their language comes as naturally to the human animal as does speech itself. Telling them not to do so because you, in your turn, judge their knowledge insufficient, is quite similar to mocking the double negative as illogical.

This said, I would suggest that where there are two forms, there is likely to be a semantic difference. That one or both forms subsequently fossilize does not mean that the difference is forever lost; as several posters have suggested here, in the present instance there is a latent distinction between the form with and the form without the negation.

As for the argument that it is easier to drop the negation than not to do so, I find it suspect. If that is the case, why has the negation dropped out in this phrase, and not in others? Nobody, so far as I know, would use 'I would do that if I were you' in contexts in which the negative form was pragmatically felicitous.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:07 PM on June 11, 2005


languagehat writes "the ability to speak it no more gives you the ability to understand how it works than the possession of skin gives you medical information."
See, I'd disagree with this in so far as possessing language, the ability to communicate, is a learned skill whereas we all possess skin but do not necessarily have the technical details associated with medical terminology.

That we learn how to speak and go through the normal socialization growing up that imbues varying levels of ability to communicate with speech implies that we have at least a modicum of understanding of just how meaning is transmuted from thought to speech to understanding at the other end. We may not be right but that doesn't mean we are completely ignorant.

Now perhaps we are speaking at crossed purposes to an extent, but a user of the language ought to be able to voice an opinion as to the meaning of an informal phrase which is in common usage and it may be that they are closer to correctness dare I say than a linguist. Although I get the point that the original question was why.
I know this is off topic but you don't particularly fashion your profession in the most inviting manner by merely dismissing those others of us that do enjoy this strange little beastie called language.
posted by peacay at 12:16 PM on June 11, 2005


The first linguist didn't take a course, he just paid attention to how people talk. You can still learn a lot just by doing the same.
posted by kindall at 1:16 PM on June 11, 2005


[Fuckin'-A] means exactly the same thing as "damn right!"

Uses vary, I guess. I'm more familiar with it being used in the same sense that Southern people might use "I tell you what."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:05 PM on June 11, 2005


When I hear the phrase "I couldn't care less", I take it the user is indifferent. I haven't heard or seen the phrase "I could care less", could there be some degree of caring but a question as to how much the user actually cares.
posted by Chimp at 2:58 PM on June 11, 2005


i heard the phrase "i could care less" years before the grammar nazis and ann landers came up with the idea that it was "incorrect" ... it has the same kind of ironic sarcasm as using phrases like "oh, great!" or "oh, wonderful!", when clearly something is not great or wonderful ...

i'm awaiting for the compulsive prescriptionists to tell us that we should say, "oh, that's not great" or "oh, that's not wonderful" ... tone of voice and context explains the real meaning, not just the words ... we will continue to say "i could care less" ... you will continue to grit your teeth when we do

it don't mean nothing to me ...
posted by pyramid termite at 3:42 PM on June 11, 2005


TimothyMason, you are a metametaprescriptivist. Judging other peoples' judgment of language, and judging people by their judgment of language comes as naturally to the human animal as does judging speech itself. Telling them not to do so because you, in your turn, judge their judgment inappropriate, is quite similar to deciding that mocking the double negative as illogical is illogical.
posted by grouse at 3:50 PM on June 11, 2005


The first linguist didn't take a course, he just paid attention to how people talk. You can still learn a lot just by doing the same.

Very true. However, this thread makes it quite clear that a significant number of well educated, literate, otherwise highly perceptive people have never, ever bothered to listen to how people talk, or to think about what language is or how it works. To take an trollish example that (thankfully) nobody rose to, "Yeah. Their's no good reason they're should be rules is their?" is one of the most perfect examples of self-negating sarcasm I've ever seen...

As far as "couldn't/could care less" goes, I'd suggest that where a semantic difference does occur (I don't insist that it does in all cases, merely that I use it like that, and that others have said they do too), it's bolstered by the very vagueness of the literal suggestion that "I could care less". Taken as a purely logical statement, that clarifies almost nothing - it merely states that the subject at hand is not the absolute least important thing that could possibly be discussed right now. Which is a fairly useless thing to say. As such, when uttered in a fairly emphatic context, the mind of the listener naturally searches for further meaning - and it may find that further meaning in sarcasm or in a missing clause, as have been suggested. Both, I reckon, rely to some extent on knowledge of the pre-existing phrase "couldn't care less" in order to have their own full meaning.

The trick of uttering an incomplete statement (incomplete either grammatically, logically, contextually or a combination of all three) and letting the listener/reader fill in the blank is, of course, a very common one. In its extreme forms, it is frequently referred to as either "dry wit" or "smugness", depending on the quality of its use or the temperament of the listener.
posted by flashboy at 4:45 PM on June 11, 2005


Johnny7, where are you hearing Americans say this? Movies? Visitors to Down Under?

I wonder if it's a regional dialect. I've lived my entire life on the west coast of the US, and both "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less" sound absolutely normal to me. I say both phrases, but they do mean different things.

"I could care less" is something I'd say when someone is bugging me with inane questions that don't interest me. Imagine an annoying work colleague who insists on getting you coffee, but doesn't leave it at that. "Coffee?" "Ok, thanks." "small, medium, large?" "anything is fine." "caf, decaf, half-caf?" "anything is fine. thanks" "do you want milk? cream? non-fat milk? soy?" "i don't care." "sugar, sweet&low, equal, splenda." "I COULD CARE LESS!" (Each word is deliberately pronounced and the emphasis is on 'care'.)

"I couldn't care less" is more dismissive. "What do you feel about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes." "I couldn't care less about them." (shrugs shoulders)

I don't know how common "my" usage of these phrases is, but everyone seems to understand what I mean when I do use them.

FWIW, I have a post-graduate education, and have taken a linguistics course. (Well, a history of Germanic languages course. Does that count?)

Good question, Johnny7. Interesting thread everyone. (no sarcasm here.)
posted by luneray at 6:07 PM on June 11, 2005


Any user of language can address what does or doesn't make sense, because as you descriptivists yourself suggest, it's the users of language who determine what makes sense.

Any user of language can address what does or doesn't make sense to them. They can also observationally address what does or doesn't make sense to the people around them, though I tend to think this takes a bit more training/practice. However, (and this is a common misunderstanding of descriptivism) users of language absolutely can not consciously determine what should make sense. Controlling language, or particular linguistic forms, is completely out of the realm of any language user (and for that matter, basically out of the realm of governments too). People who have decided that something is illogical and shouldn't be said, even if this causes them not to say it themselves, are not valid data points for descriptive analysis.

See, I'd disagree with this in so far as possessing language, the ability to communicate, is a learned skill whereas we all possess skin but do not necessarily have the technical details associated with medical terminology.

Language is not consciously learned in the same way e.g. driving is - it is acquired without conscious effort by children between the ages of 0 and approximately 10 who don't know what they're doing or why they are doing it. So it is learned, but only in the sense that, say, recognizing objects is learned. Some linguists would probably even say language is acquired by approximately the same class of mechanisms skin is.
posted by advil at 7:04 PM on June 11, 2005


Fucking-A is an affirmation, like "Word!"

Not exactly -- there's not the same component of agreement. More "Holy Shit, that's big/ dangerous/ bad-ass/ whatever."


And, along with languagehat, there is when I use it, too. I first encountered it during the "right on!" era, and it was a tougher, less trite statement of the same sentiment as that. As for its being equivalent to "I tell you what," which I also encountered at about the same time, nope. That one is just a variant of "You know what?" It's meaningless filler.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:58 PM on June 11, 2005


luneray.This question prompted by the use of the phrase in this AskMe
posted by johnny7 at 9:39 PM on June 11, 2005


to me "I could care less" implies a continuation along the lines of "...but I find it hard to imagine circumstances under which I would."

as for "word":
There is when I use it; it means exactly the same thing as "damn right!"

"word" to me connotes an agreement with the manner in which the sentiment was expressed on top of agreement with the sentiment itself.
posted by juv3nal at 10:09 PM on June 11, 2005


grouse - neat, but not quite accurate. I was simply describing languagehat's position as it appears to me. Making the claim that Descriptivism holds in contexts other than linguistic discourse is a form of social Prescriptivism. Descriptivist linguistics is interesting in and of itself; it has nothing to tell us as to how we should speak or even as to how we should speak of language. Having done a course in linguistics gives one no greater degree of authority than the next fellow to make any pronouncement on pragmatic felicity; to lay claim to such authority is rather like demanding umpiring privileges in a cricket match on the grounds that one is a competent player of chess.

Within linguistics, the claim that a phrase or sentence is 'ungrammatical' is a technical claim about structure. In every-day conversation among the schooled, the meaning is rather woolier - which is not to imply that it is worse in any way, simply that it is other. 'I could care less' is, so far as the linguist is concerned, grammatically correct in the technical sense. Clearly, from what has been said above, many people find it grammatically incorrect in the more general sense. At which point, we can reach for Bourdieu's "Ce que parler veut dire". Or we can go out and get a little of the sunshine that is presently illuminating the Isle de Paris.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:30 AM on June 12, 2005


I don't give a shit.

Let's all say that instead and avoid the confusion altogether.
posted by suchatreat at 8:46 AM on June 12, 2005


Languagehat- "but if you'd take a course or read a book you'd figure it out pretty fast."

Footnotes! Name three favorites. (BTW, I disagree on some of your points, but it's late in this melee, so I'll let it ride until the next time prescriptive/descriptive comes up. Thank you in the meantime.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:29 PM on June 12, 2005


"Yeah. Their's no good reason they're should be rules is their?" is one of the most perfect examples of self-negating sarcasm I've ever seen...
Self-negating sarcasm, flashboy?

It clearly makes the point. Words mean things, if they don't communication is impossible. The meanings of words are arbitrary and, as such, if hearers and speakers cannot agree on definitions then the speakers cannot make themselves understood.

I like linguistics. I dislike what someone has called metaprescriptivism. I've coined the phrase (Is this the correct usage? This expression is commonly misused and I actually care whether I get it right, since I believe that the word 'right' actually means something in this context.) descriptive determinism. This is the mistaken idea that a corpus is a dictionary.
posted by Octaviuz at 9:02 AM on June 13, 2005


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