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

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Tue Mar 9 18:09:50 UTC 2021

Great stuff from Pat and Stewart -- the 1949 Australian letter is terrific
evidence of "could care less." I looked into this back in 2005 and found
"could care less" from 1955 and "couldn't care less" from 1944 (the OED
entry for "care" clearly hasn't been updated for a while):


Looking again now, I've found "could care less" from 1948 from a Canadian

Ottawa Evening Citizen, July 20, 1948, p. 3, col. 6
"Novel Race Between Citron and the Frost" by W.T. Larmour
The idea is that because their frost comes earlier (if it does) the
Gatineau goers are. a more rugged, tougher breed than people who stick
around in Ottawa. I could care less!

I would say the 1892 example of "could not care less" mentioned by Pat
isn't quite the modern idiom, as it's in the form "You could not care less
for him if he were a dog." Looking again for idiomatic "couldn't care
less," the earliest I find is from 1942.

Kansas City (Mo.) Star, Jan. 25, 1942, p. 4C, col. 6
"The Coup of Mr. Marsland Faille," by Marcel Wallenstein
"Why, Mr. Pennington, I think you're funny."
"I mean it. You see, I've lost."
"Have you?" she said, and poured herself another drink.
"Yes, I have."
"I couldn't care less," responded Miss Mond lightly.


On Tue, Mar 9, 2021 at 12:39 PM Mailbox <mailbox at grammarphobia.com> wrote:

> 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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