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Could you care less? Indeed you could

Oliver Wendell Holmes fils famously said about the common law, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” The same holds true for the life of the language.

I’m reminded of this point (which I’ve made before, but were you listening?) on reading Jan Freeman’s latest column on language in The Boston Globe, in which she points out that—brace yourself, here it comes—could care less has become a perfectly acceptable idiomatic expression, even though it gets up the nose of people who think that only couldn’t care less is correct.

“[A]ll over the Web,” she writes, “sober professionals and spelling-impaired amateurs continue to insist that ‘I could care less’ really must mean ‘I care to some extent.’ But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.” She’s right, and while some people may itch with irritation when someone says, “I could care less,” no one ever mistakes the meaning. The expression, Ms. Freeman points out, has been around for half a century and shows no indication of fading away.

English, like any language has identifiable patterns, like the order of adjectives,* that grammarians and linguists can catalogue. But its patterns are not those of logic. And it is full of idiosyncratic elements, like its notoriously wayward spellings.

Idioms, in any language, convey meanings that cannot be determined from the literal sense of the words. So you can object to an idiom and shun it because you find it trite or common or inappropriate for the tone or subject or audience. But you don’t get to kvetch about it for being illogical. Idioms are inherently illogical. Here’s an idiom: Put a sock in it. You may not care for could care less, but I could care less about your objections. And frankly, apart from the tiny company of peevers, no one else gives a tinker’s damn either.

 

*opinion, size, shape, condition, age, color, origin, material

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:36 PM | | Comments (13)
        

Comments

The explanation seems rather straightforward. “I couldn't care less” is the plain expression and “I could care less” is the ironic variant, elliptic for “As if I could care less”.

Read my ellipsis …

I think we can say that this idiom is fine, that it is unexceptionable, that it is (language log notwithstanding) largely confined to your side of the Atlantic, and that we'd all be cheeriest if it stayed that way.

No matter how many people say up is down, it isn't.

"Put a sock in it" means simply "stuff it." It's not illogical.

Said with a rising intonation and a questioning tone, "I could care less?" makes perfect sense anyway.

John, I always enjoy your posts.

For years I have been under the impression that a tinker's dam (d-a-m) was a small piece of easily worked metal used by the tinker to dam up the hole in a leaky pot. A tinker's dam is practically worthless other than for its intended use.

Best regards.

If you could care less, you've got another think coming.

Tinker's dam is apparently a folk etymology:

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/tinkers-damn.html

Having grown up with "couldn't care less" (on the far side of the Atlantic), "could care less" is one of those variants that always brings me to a grinding halt. Some things really are lost in the translation, especially when we forget the need to do so.

People who object "because it's illogical" remind me of those people who object to the intensifying (so-called "double") negative because "two negatives make a positive": For some reason they aren't happy with "I don't know nothing about birthing no babies", either, though surely three negatives make a negative?

I've always interpreted "I could care less" to be part of a more complete statement that we've lost part of over time.

"I could care less... but I don't."

But don't you know The Queen wants you to stop saying 'could care less?

How is it justifiable to care so vehemently about "comprise" yet wave off "could care less?" Tis inconsistent, methinks!

I love this comment:

""Put a sock in it" means simply "stuff it." It's not illogical."

The writer's obliviousness to the fact that "stuff it" is also idiomatic is pure gold.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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