"All seriousness aside"

Wilson Gray wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Sat Aug 6 06:17:44 UTC 2005

On Aug 5, 2005, at 6:35 PM, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Benjamin Zimmer <bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: "All seriousness aside"
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> On Fri, 5 Aug 2005 12:49:12 -0400, Wilson Gray <wilson.gray at RCN.COM>
> wrote:
>> FWIW, I first heard "I could care less" in 1959, when I was in the
>> Army. It was the first day of basic training and the speaker was the
>> barracks sergeant, a black Puerto-Rican with a very thick - or is it
>> "heavy"? - Spanish accent. So, I figured that he had made a simple,
>> non-native-speaker's mistake. However, I soon discovered that this
>> locution was used *throughout* the Army, both here and overseas, by
>> soldiers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, regardless of rank.
>> Well, at least up to the rank of brigadier general. I never so much as
>> laid eyes on anyone of higher rank. It was stereotypical to the point
>> of being jargon. *Nobody anywhere* used "I _couldn't_ care less" under
>> *any* circumstances. And it was already in everyday use at every post
>> that I was assigned to before I got there, as ubiquitous as "GI."
>> So, I figure that, whatever its origin, it had been in use in the
>> military probably for several years prior to 1959, if anyone cares.
> Last time I looked for antedatings, I found cites for "could care less"
> from 1955 and 1957:
> -----
> This Morning . . . With Shirley Povich
> Washington Post, Sep 25, 1955, p. C1/1
> The National League clubs have always shied from pitching left-handers
> against the Dodgers, but Casey Stengel could care less about the
> Dodgers'
> reputation for beating southpaws.
> -----
> Letters to the Editor
> Wall St Journal, Mar 28, 1957, p. 12/3
> "I don't know what the exact statistics are, and could care less, but
> from
> all reports, the great majority of draft-age young men are just not
> being
> drafted nowadays."
> -----
> By 1960, it was common enough to be discussed in an Ann Landers column:
> -----
> Salisbury (Md.) Times (and various other papers), Oct. 20, 1960
> DEAR ANN: My girl friend and I are having an argument. You know that
> common expression: "I couldn't care less." Well she says it's "I COULD
> care less."  Please tell us in your column which is right. -- TOOTH AND
> DEAR TOENAIL: The expression as I understand it is "I couldn't care
> less"
> which means I don't care at all. On the other hand, maybe she COULD
> care
> less, which means she does care at least a little.  To be honest, this
> is
> a waste of valuable newspaper space and I couldn't care less.
> -----
> --Ben Zimmer

That works for me, Ben. And, given that very little GI slang makes it
into the real world - there just isn't enough similarity between Army
life and civilian life - I'd *guess* that it originated outside of the
Army and got spread throughout the military by some random draftee
subjected to either TCS (temporary changes of station) or PCS
(permanent change ...).

I have a younger brother who was a naval officer back in the day and we
couldn't even use military jargon to chat with each other. Army jargon
and Navy jargon are just too different. Also, he was an officer,
whereas I was an EM and I found his "command attitude" annoying as
hell. If I'd had a forelock, I would have felt obliged to tug it.


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