I could care less

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Jan 31 00:44:04 UTC 2001

At 11:55 PM -0500 1/30/01, D. Ezra Johnson wrote:
>It could have started sarcastically, and transferred over to speakers who
>lack the specific (Yiddish?) intonation pattern alluded to earlier: an
>interesting kind of shift where pragmatics (sarcasm) is replaced by a sort
>of marked, backward semantics. What I'm trying to say is that it ends up
>like one of those expressions where you just have to know it means the
>opposite of what it sounds like, such as the alleged Bostonianism
>"So don't I."
>"Same difference" is similar, and there must be others.
I think it is a lot like "So don't/can't I" (which, for those not
familiar with the New Englandism, means "So do I").  This too is most
plausibly reconstructed as a sarcasm that became conventionalized,
although here we end up with an "extra" negative instead of a missing
one. In pushing a sarcastic origin for "could care less" I was trying
to draw a contrast with cases of true least-effort reductions of
negation, as in the ongoing loss of preverbal "ne" in French now that
the post-verbal reinforcer "pas" (originally = 'step', as in "I
didn't walk a step") has taken on negative force.  (This reflects the
so-called "Jespersen's Cycle"; something very similar happened to the
Middle English pre-verbal particle "ne" and the Middle Dutch "en".)
In such cases, we have a real least-effort-based reduction and no
sarcasm was ever involved.  I think Dan (and earlier Tony) is right
in noting that there's no conscious, on-line sarcasm involved (or, I
would say, necessarily involved) in current uses of "I could care
less", but this sort of conventionalization is not unknown; for many
speakers "You're a fine friend", with any intonation contour, can
only mean the opposite of what it seems to mean.


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