"could care less"

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sun May 24 15:04:28 UTC 2009

On May 23, 2009, at 12:39 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:

> Was there any conclusion arrived at as to the (historical) origin of
> "I could care less"?

there are four questions here:

(1) when was it first used?
(2) who innovated it?
(3) what mechanism of change led it to?
(4) what were the meanings and uses of the expression in its early

and then there's the question:

(5) what are the meanings and uses of the expession now?

as for (1): ben zimmer has now posted about early coccurrences in
print, for both "couldn't care less" and "could care less" (note that
both expressions need some description.  "couldn't care less" is
semantically transparent, but at some point it seems to have become a
colloquial formula.  "could care less" is an idiom.)  it's very likely
that there were earlier occurrences in the spoken language.

Wilson's reports having first heard it used in the Army in the late
'50s, and also that none of the recruits in his training company had
heard it before (so that there was much discussion about in the
barracks).  so it was new *for them* (though it became routine
"military jargon" for them).  but of course others were using it --
after all, the uses they first heard came from *somewhere*.

as for (2): it's also very likely that "could care less" was innovated
on different occasions by different (ordinary) people, possibly for
more than one reason (see below), in which case it's fruitless to
search for a First User.  (most linguistic innovations are like
that.)  it's of course *possible* that there was some prominent vector
of spread (like a comedian or a character in a radio or television
show), but at the moment we have no evidence of this.

now, (3)-(5), which are the questions Language Log was concerned with.

the following posting has an inventory of postings specifically on
"could care less" (14 of them) before it:

ML, 6/20/05: The care less train has left the station:

to which add:

ML, 6/29/05: Caring more or less:

("could care less" gets mentioned a great many other times, in
discussions of other cases of undernegation, and in discussions of
"prescriptivist" rants about usage.  i haven't tried to inventory

on questions (3)-(5): there are two competing origin stories: one,
advanced especially by Steve Pinker, says that it's sarcasm (with
sarcastic intent *and* sarcastic prosody) -- sarcastically saying the
opposite of what you mean.  the other, advanced especially by John
Lawler, says that it arises via "negation by association", as in the
development of French negation from plain explicit negator NE to
idiomatic strengthened negation in NE PAS 'not a step' and then to
negator PAS on its own.  (this is a bare-bones telling of the story;
there are lots of further details.  note that similar developments
have occurred in many other languages.)  that is, by association with
the negative idiom NE PAS, PAS can stand on its own to signal
negation.  similarly, on Lawler's account, the negative polarity item
COULD CARE LESS (an expression that normally occurs only under the
scope of negation) can stand on its own to signal a negative.

(some other NPIs can be similarly used -- COULD GIVE A DAMN/SHIT/CRAP,
for instance -- either directly via negation by association, or by
analogy with COULD CARE LESS.)

these two accounts give different answers to question (5): Pinker
maintains that "could care less" was sarcastic in origin and is
sarcastic now, while Lawler maintains that it originated in
strengthened negation and is a strengthened negation now (but is now a
"stronger" negative than "couldn't care less").

the Language Loggers (primarily Mark Liberman, though others have
contributed to the discussion as well) strongly favor Lawler's account
over Pinker's, and in particular deny that "could care less" (whatever
its origins) is now sarcastic in intent (or prosody), maintaining that
it is now mostly a strong negative idiom with unremarkable prosody
(though of course all sorts of expressions, including this one, *can*
be deployed sarcastically).  Here's a summary of some of this
discussion, with links back to relevant postings:

AZ, 7/24/04: Caring less all the time: A variant of the etymological
   and some cautions about the pragmatics-phonetics connection: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001256.html


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