[Ads-l] antedating OED on "could care less"

Mailbox mailbox at GRAMMARPHOBIA.COM
Tue Mar 9 17:38:59 UTC 2021

The OED's earliest sighting of "could care less" is from 1966, and it's labeled "U.S. colloquial phrase." But my husband and I have found evidence of it in Australia in 1949, clearly used in the modern sense of "could not care less." We found interdatings from earlier in the 60s as well, in editing writing.   

We report this in an updated post on our blog: https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/12/more-about-caring-less.html <https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/12/more-about-caring-less.html>

A letter written in 1949, and entered into testimony in a divorce court in Perth in 1950, has at least five examples of "I could care less." The letter was excerpted two years later in a news article about the divorce (The Mirror, Perth, June 28, 1952). 

We didn't include the link to the article, so here it is:  

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/75777641?searchTerm=%22could+care+less%22 <https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/75777641?searchTerm=%22could+care+less%22>

Some of the excerpts we quote:

"I did love you with all the passion and love that is possible of a man (if you can call me a man in your idea) and now I could care less."  … "But at the present time I could care less." … "I don't care how you take it, I could care less." … "I'm writing how I feel and I could car [sic] less. Goodnight Zoe and goodbye if you wish it—I could care less."

We've also found "could not care less" from 1892 (OED has only the contracted form, from 1946). 

Our post ventures to speculate about the development of "could care less." Rather than being ironic, it could be a natural extension of a literal construction in which a negative element ("no one," "none," "few," "nobody,” conditional “if," etc.) appears before “could care less." We give examples, beginning in the 1860s, for British and American uses of this construction: "few men … could care less," "no man could care less," "no one could care less," "nobody could care less," "neither of them could care less," "I don’t believe they could care less," and so on. 

As we note, it's not much of a jump from "nobody could care less" to "they could care less."

Pat O’Conner

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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