Word of the Month

“I couldn’t care less”

David Zapatka

Reader, friend and pickleball mixed doubles partner, Dianne Zimmerman, suggested we investigate the colloquialisms “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” asking which one is correct.

People mean the same thing when they use either of these expressions. They could not care any less than they do about the topic at hand. Logically however, it is obvious “I couldn’t care less” is the accurate way to express this feeling. So why do we hear the sarcastic “I could care less” used so often and is it acceptable and correct?

The phrase “I couldn’t care less” originated in Britain and made its way to the United States in the 1950s. The phrase “I could care less” first appeared in the United States in the 1960s. Its use is found only in this country; 1966 was the first known time it was recorded in print. “Couldn’t care less” is still the dominant form in print but “Could care less” has steadily gained ground since the 1960s. Some linguists believe the 1960s phrase originated as a way to show sarcasm or irony by changing the emphasis on the words. Other linguists argue that the type of sound at the end of “couldn’t” is naturally dropped by sloppy or slurring speakers. The real question is “what caused the negative to disappear when the original form of the expression was still very much in use and considered proper?” My personal sense is that it is not the result of sloppy speaking. It is clearly a way to increase sarcasm or irony and this is the reason the negative vanished and the emphasis was changed.

There are some American Yiddish-inflected phrases that work this way, like “I should be so lucky!” (meaning “There’s no way I’m ever going to be that lucky!”) or “I should care!” (meaning “Why should I care?”). Even if “could care less” didn’t originate from a sarcastic or ironic intent, it clearly has staying power as it matches up very well with these other language forms.

Which expression should you use? Etymologists, linguists, purists and publicists would likely advise you to use the original and logical “Couldn’t care less” and might cringe when you use “Could care less.” On the other hand, to get your emphasized sarcastic or ironic point across as Jaime Lannister did in the movie Game of Thrones, “I could care less what anyone thinks of me,” you may want to stick with “Could care less” as it’s a popular set idiom, something we have all heard before and learned as a unit of speech.

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