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4 Good Reasons Why People Say “I Could Care Less”

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March 4th: It’s not only a date, it’s an imperative (march forth!). Since 2008 it has also been National Grammar Day, a holiday conceived by Martha Brockenbrough of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. Rather than use the occasion as a chance to go around correcting mistakes or teaching the finer points of usage (plenty of other people have those beats covered), I like to take the opportunity to focus on the sometimes weird and wonderful things that languages do (or that people do with languages). Last year I had fun with 7 Sentences That Sound Crazy But Are Still Grammatical. This year I’d like to go over a few good reasons why people say, “I could care less.” The list does not include “because they’re stupid and have no idea how logic works.” It turns out, there are a number of things about English that conspire to make “I could care less” a less irrational phrase than it might seem.

1. Sarcasm

A number of language writers have suggested that “could care less” has a sarcastic reading, conveying something like “Ha! As if there were something in the world I could care less about.” There are some American Yiddish-inflected phrases that work this way, like “I should be so lucky!” (meaning “there’s no way I’m ever gonna be that lucky”) or “I should care!” (why should I care?). Even if “could care less” didn’t originate from a sarcastic intent, it matches up well enough with these other forms in the language to help give it staying power.

2. Positive/negative phrase pairs

Why use “could care less” if we also have “couldn’t care less”? There are other pairs of phrases in English about which you could ask the same question. Why say “that will teach you to leave your car unlocked” when you really mean “that will teach you not to leave your car unlocked.” Some other phrases that can mean the same thing with or without the negation:

You know squat about that. You don’t know squat about that.

I wonder whether we can make that work. I wonder whether we can’t make that work.

You shouldn’t go, I think. You shouldn’t go, I don’t think.

I can hardly wait. I can’t hardly wait.

Again, there’s an existing framework that helps “could care less” blend right in.

3. Implied comparison

Evidence for the use of “could care less” goes back to 1955, with “couldn’t care less” appearing only about 10 years before that. But long before that the phrase “No one could care less than I” was in use. Think about how you might respond to such a phrase in a certain type of conversation. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life! How dare they imply such a thing! No one could care less for the trappings of fame than I!”

“I could, darling. I could care less.”

The rest of the comparison, “than you,” is left understood. Perhaps “I could care less” also carries a shadow of the original phrase and a hidden comparison. “I could care less … than anyone.”

4. Idioms don’t care about logic

People might not have any thought of sarcasm, positive/negative phrase pairs, or implied comparison when they use “I could care less,” but when they use it, it’s as a set idiom, something they’ve heard before and learned as a unit. We have plenty of idioms that serve us perfectly well, despite the gaps in logic that appear if you look at them too closely. Consider “head over heels” (shouldn’t it be heels over head?) or “have your cake and eat it too?” (shouldn’t it be eat your cake and have it too?) or “the exception proves the rule” (shouldn’t it be the exception invalidates the rule?). There are reasons these idioms developed the way they did, but we don’t have to know anything about those reasons, or the original meanings, to use them perfectly sensibly. Same goes for “I could care less,” which people only ever use to mean “I couldn’t care less,” never the opposite. It doesn’t cause legitimate confusion, though it does cause quite a bit of consternation. In any case, it’s here to stay.

For more on “could care less” see the collection of links on this topic at LanguageLog, columns by Jan Freeman at Boston Globe, John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun, and Ben Zimmer at Visual Thesaurus, and the snappy overview by Bill Walsh in Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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