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Unless I'm mistaken, in most of the English speaking world, the phrase "I don't care to X" indicates that the speaker prefers not to do the particular activity. However, as I was reminded during a visit recently, in some parts of the southern US, it actually has another meaning that's roughly opposite. That is, that the speaker doesn't mind doing the activity. For example:

I don't care to get dirty.

would normally mean that the speaker doesn't like getting dirty, and would presumably try to avoid it. However, it was clear from context that the speaker meant that unlike others with whom she was comparing herself, she would be willing to participate in an activity that would get her quite dirty.

Does anyone have any information on the history of this particular meaning? Did both meanings come into existence simultaneously and one became non-standard or did one enter later? Are there other areas/dialects that use the alternate meaning? Any other information you happen to have would be appreciated.

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For the second meaning of not minding, I personally would say "I don't care about getting dirty". –  Henry Apr 25 '11 at 19:36
@Henry - yeah, that would be much more common I believe. –  Dusty Apr 25 '11 at 19:45
Sorry on the mistaken edit of the title. –  Uticensis Apr 26 '11 at 14:12
@Billare - no worries –  Dusty Apr 26 '11 at 14:16
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3 Answers

I think it's just a corruption of "I don't care about getting dirty", similar to how "I could care less" is often said when the user obviously means "I couldn't care less."

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Agreed. It could also be expressed as "I don't care if I get dirty". –  Loquacity Apr 26 '11 at 11:16
I agree that the IMPORT of "I could care less" is "I couldn't care less", but I don't agree that it is a CORRUPTION of "I couldn't care less". I believe it is an EMPHATIC FORM of "I couldn't care less", somewhat along the lines of, "I care so little that I can't even be bothered to formulate my rejection of it grammatically", or, "If I really, really tried, maybe I could care less than I do now, but, frankly, I doubt it". –  Hexagon Tiling Feb 28 '12 at 6:50
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Having grown up in an area where the positive sense of "I don't care to VERB" is common the best equivalent of this in standard English is more at "I don't mind VERBing" rather than "I don't care about VERBing". I have no sense of the etymological history of the phrase, and I suppose it makes sense that it might have come from the 'care about' pattern, but there is a subtle difference in meaning:

I don't care to pet-sit your cat while you are away.

which means the person is positively agreeing to do so even though some people might consider it too onerous a task to undertake. That doesn't have the same meaning as:

*I don't care about pet-sitting your cat while you are away.

I'm having trouble giving a good interpretation but it seems to have either a neutral or mildly negative sense.

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So, we have (yet another) expression (such as “sanction”) with antonymous meanings. The antonymous meanings need not occur with equal probability. When the probability of one of the antonymous meanings is sufficiently low (from the reporter’s point of view – it might be quite high within a given locale), it is prone to be regarded as an anomaly when encountered. The case in point is analogous to the fact that “careless” can have the two (near-antonymous) meanings of “sloppy” and “without a worry”, the latter being a nearly archaic meaning.

Which of the two antonymous meanings is operative depends on what “to” binds to. The expression “care_to [raw infinitive]” is a softer way of saying “want [full_infinitive]” (for example: “Do you care to go to the carnival with me today?”), whereas “care [full_infinitive]” means “have a worry about [corresponding gerund]” (for example: “Do you care to get dirty?” means “Do you care about getting dirty?”).

Consider the following two passages:

“Get dirty? – I don’t care.”

“Get dirty? – I don’t care to.”

The first is unambiguous, but the second is ambiguous, depending on what “to” binds to. If folks in a region do not bind “to” to “care”, it can be confusing for visitors from the wider world where “to” DOES get bound to “care”.

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