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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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language
6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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