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In standard Present-day English, "I don't care to be there" means the same as "I don't wish to be there." Apparently, this is not the case in some present and historical dialects. Wylene P. Dial writes in The Dialect of The Appalachian People (1969):

One of the most baffling expressions our people use (baffling to "furriners," at least) is "I don't care to. . . ." To outlanders this seems to mean a definite "no," whereas in truth it actually means, "thank you so much, I'd love to." One is forevermore hearing a tale of mutual bewilderment in which a gentleman driving an out-of-state car sees a young fellow standing alongside the road, thumbing. When the gentleman stops and asks if he wants a lift, the boy very properly replies, "I don't keer to," using care in the Elizabethan sense of the word. On hearing this, the man drives off considerably puzzled leaving an equally baffled young man behind.

I've been able to find some voices on the internet confirming that this usage is still present. However, I haven't found any example the Elizabethan usage. I'm wondering how widespread it was then, and whether the two opposing meanings ever co-existed on equal rights. I've found some Scottish sentences from the beginning of the 19th century in Wright's English Dialect Dictionary.

CARE

With the negative: to make no objection.

Sc. Even Irish Teague ayont Belfast Wadna care to spear about
her, SKINNER Misc. Poems (1809) 159; I see you've read my hame-
spun lays And wadna care to soun' my praise, COCK Strains (1810)
85; I dinna care to gang wi' you a bit. He wadna [hae] cared
to hae strucken me (JAM.).

However, under "AT-OWER", there's this:

Sc. An' mair attour, I didna care to bachle my new sheen, FORBES Jrn. (1742) 16

"Bachle" means wear down and "sheen" are shoes, so I believe it's the standard modern meaning of "care to" employed here.

My questions/requests are:

  1. Could you give me some examples of this strange usage in Elizabethan English, preferably not Scottish, since I'm already pretty sure Scots used to employ it?

  2. Did the two opposing meaning ever co-exist in any area?

  3. How did it happen exactly that the two opposing meaning arose? It's not counter-intuitive to me, but I'm having trouble putting my intuition into words.

  4. If you have something interesting to say about this matter that I didn't ask about, please do.

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This is rather like the exchange of “Would you mind getting in the car?” followed by “No, not at all,” sometimes causing the car to drive off due to misunderstanding the answer to his own question and supremely frustrating the pedestrian, who said he didn’t at all mind getting in the car — meaning, that he would care to do so. –  tchrist May 19 '12 at 0:53

2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I've done a quick search through Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online (MEMSO) and certainly have one hint of it being used in the positive, not negative sense in England.

1655 'Residents of Belton declared their resolution to fight for their possessions, and when he said "Surely you will not rebel against the Lord Protector," they replied they had rebelled against a better man and would not care to rebel against him. 22 Nov 1655 (Cal. State Papers Domestic, 1655-1657, p 81)

Problem here is that CSP Domestic is not a verbatim transcript, so you'd need to track down the original to be sure.

Weighed against this, is a much larger number of documents using 'would not care to' in the conventional sense of 'would not want to'.

I can imagine that phrases like this can get turned on their heads quite easily though. Anybody familiar with the phrases 'I could not care less' (UK) and 'I could care less' (North America) can testify to that.

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You misattribute the “I could care less” thing to North Americans. Neither I, my family, nor any of my friends would dream of saying such a silly thing. –  tchrist May 19 '12 at 5:18
    
I live in Canada, and plenty of us say it where I live, although not me! It seems equally valid whichever way you say it here. In the UK (where I spent the first 2/3 of my life) only the first is ever heard. –  fred2 May 19 '12 at 5:23
    
@Fred Actually, I have a feeling that the current usage might be the one "turned on the head". I as far as possible from being sure, but the original meaning of "care" was grieve, a "negative" one. That would make "not care" "positive". –  user18036 May 19 '12 at 9:40

Care has several subtle meanings depending on context. "I don't care to..." can be the negative "I don't wish to...", but it can also mean the almost neutral "I don't mind to..." where you have no objection to something. Perhaps this latter meaning shares something in common with the positive Appalachian?

If so, definition 4 for care in the OED covers such negative and conditional construction.

Definition 4.a.(a) is neutral:

not to care passes from the notion of ‘not to trouble oneself’, to those of ‘not to mind, not to regard or pay any deference or attention, to pay no respect, be indifferent’. Const. for, etc.

1490 Caxton tr. Foure Sonnes of Aymon (1885) vi. 139, I departed fro my londe poure & exyled, but I dyd not care for it.
1535 Bible (Coverdale) Matt. xxii. 16 Master we knowe that thou..carest for no man.
1590 Spenser Faerie Queene ii. ii. sig. O2v, Ne ought he car'd, whom he endamaged By tortious wrong. a1616 Shakespeare Tempest (1623) i. i. 15 What cares these roarers for the name of King?

And definition 4.b. is a bit more positive:

Not to mind (something proposed); to have no disinclination or objection, be disposed to. Now only with if, though.

1526 W. Bonde Pylgrimage of Perfection i. sig. Fii, Some for a fewe tythes, with Cayn, careth nat to lese the eternall ryches of heuen.
c1590 Marlowe & T. Nashe Dido iv. v, So you'll love me, I care not if I do.
1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 i. ii. 126, I care not if I doe become your phisitian.
...
1748 S. Richardson Clarissa V. xx. 179 Will you eat, or drink, friend?.. I don't care if I do.

Here, Shakespeare's Chief Justice is telling Falstaff he wouldn't mind throwing him into prison. It's a threat, almost like he wants to imprison him.

And Richardson's more recent use is more familiar:

Widow. Will you eat, or drink, friend?

Fellow. A cup of small ale, I don't care if I do.

Widow. Margaret, take the young man down, and treat him with what the house affords.

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