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What's the deal with the phrase "could care less"?

Whilst growing up, I've always known people (parents etc) to use the phrase "couldn't care less", but I've also come across people who use the phrase "could care less" to mean the same thing (that is, "I do not care at all about that").

To me "couldn't care less" seems a lot more logical. If I couldn't care less about something, that implies I do not care about it at all. In contrast to this, to my mind the phrase "could care less" seems to indicate "I do care about this to some degree at least", but that's definitely not the meaning intended.

What's going on here? Is my (logical) analysis correct or in error?

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11 Answers 11

up vote 30 down vote accepted

I've heard it said that "could care less" is meant to be ironic, but I think this is just justification for the bastardisation of an English phrase.

Here we go (from World Wide Words):

There’s a close link between the stress pattern of I could care less and the kind that appears in certain sarcastic or self-deprecatory phrases that are associated with the Yiddish heritage and (especially) New York Jewish speech. Perhaps the best known is I should be so lucky!, in which the real sense is often “I have no hope of being so lucky”, a closely similar stress pattern with the same sarcastic inversion of meaning. There’s no evidence to suggest that I could care less came directly from Yiddish, but the similarity is suggestive. There are other American expressions that have a similar sarcastic inversion of apparent sense, such as Tell me about it!, which usually means “Don’t tell me about it, because I know all about it already”. These may come from similar sources.

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That certainly would seem to explain it. I still think it's a horrible phrase though and like me, others don't seem to understand it and don't necessary stress it appropriately when speaking it. –  Mark Embling Aug 13 '10 at 12:30
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I've heard it said that "could care less" is meant to be ironic, but I think this is just justification for the bastardisation of an English phrase. Yes, thank you! I’ve also heard that it is meant to be sarcastic, but that is BS because you cannot use that sarcastically or ironically, it just doesn’t work like actual ironic statements, and certainly not when used with the tone that anyone who has ever said it has used. It is definitely just another example of illiterate people trying to obstinately defend their ignorance instead of acknowledging it and trying to learn something. –  Synetech Jan 2 at 20:27

I also think "couldn't care less" is the correct form since it is more logical. Perhaps this is a meta issue in that precisely those people who say "could care less" could not indeed care less whether they are speaking logically or not.

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I like your thinking :) –  Mark Embling Aug 13 '10 at 12:31
    
+1 I've learned this the hard way. –  Chris Dwyer Aug 13 '10 at 15:54
    
I've always thought about this pair of phrases like you explained. –  Jared Updike Sep 1 '11 at 17:25
    
At least in English, we could care less about being logical. –  Jez May 30 '12 at 14:03
    
Perhaps this is a meta issue in that precisely those people who say "could care less" could not indeed care less whether they are speaking logically or not. I have a sinking feeling that this could become more and more normal as the illiterate Internet generation grows up. :-( –  Synetech Jan 2 at 20:28

You should feel free to say either variety. "Could care less" actually occurs more frequently. It is an entrenched idiom. No fluent speaker will have any trouble understanding what you mean. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both with the same meaning:

care

...

(4). In negative and conditional construction: a. 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’.

...

(c) Colloq. phr. (I, etc.) couldn't care less: (I am, etc.) completely uninterested, utterly indifferent; freq. as phr. used attrib. Hence couldn't-care-less-ness.

(d) U.S. colloq. phr. (I, etc.) could care less = sense (c) above, with omission of negative.

If you're interested in a linguist's thoughts on the topic, you can start reading this article, and continue with all the linked articles at the bottom of that.


That being said, there are two reasons you might want to avoid "could care less":

  1. There are a lot of people that peeve about "could care less," and if you're worried about offending them maybe you shouldn't use the phrase. (On the other hand, now that you've read this answer and the articles I've linked to, you can confidently tell them that they're actually the ones who are wrong, and "could care less" is perfectly fine, and if they have a problem with it then it's because they are trying to alter the English language.)

  2. When speaking to non-fluent speakers, you should attempt to avoid idioms like "could care less" or "raining cats and dogs". If they aren't familiar with the idiom, they might try to parse it literally.

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Good link, thanks. However on a personal level (despite being a native English speaker), I find the variant "could care less" more difficult to parse, and it is up to me as the reader to flip that to a negative mentally. Am I peculiar in my quite highly logical mindset? –  Mark Embling Aug 13 '10 at 14:44
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Idioms by their very nature are unparsable—"a phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom –  nohat Aug 13 '10 at 17:05
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"if they have a problem with it then it's because they are trying to alter the English language" — firstly, "could care less" is an "entrenched idiom" only in contemporary colloquial American English: it's less common elsewhere and elsewhen. Secondly, what's wrong with that?! Do let's alter the English language and groan at having both the logical "couldn't care less" and illogical "could care less" mean the same thing. It's fine for linguists, in their professional capacity, to only observe language and not alter it, but saying that we users of language shouldn't alter it is just weird. –  ShreevatsaR Aug 13 '10 at 17:16
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Yes, people say "could care less," just as people say "ain't", or they say "like" when they mean "approximately". They still sound dumb saying it. "Could care less" should not be used. –  Andy Lester Oct 16 '10 at 3:54
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+1, and generally agreed, but “No fluent speaker will have any trouble understanding what you mean.” isn’t quite true. Growing up in the UK I’d never heard could care less, so when I moved to the US, it completely confused me the first couple of times I heard it. –  PLL May 23 '11 at 11:21

Originally the expression was "I couldn't care less" which, as you pointed out, makes sense. Over time, this was confused and turned into "I could care less" which, of course, doesn't make sense.

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Could care less seems to be something of an Americanism? –  5arx Mar 21 '11 at 23:15

I've always thought that the newer "could care less" came about by way of casual pronunciation. Phonemes are dropped: /kʊdnt kɛɹ/ morphs into just /kʊd kɛɹ/. That is, the n and t phonemes are elided. Not surprising, since d, n and t are all alveolar consonants. As people heard it and learned the idiom, they merely continued to pronounce it the same way, and then spell it the most obvious way, based on what they thought they heard.

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That would make sense and would suggest it all boils down to a mistake and/or ignorance. Which is probably accurate... :) –  Mark Embling Aug 20 '10 at 10:35

Just to confirm by personal experience what Kip has already pretty well established:

I came to this country at 8, and was confused by such things as "I could care less", but I noticed it occurred FAR more commonly than "I couldn't care less", at least when I was a kid. In fact only in the last few years have I heard anyone at all voice dismay over what stood out to me like a sore thumb as a kid.

So you might characterize the question as being between following convention and following logic. Only a naive view of language would lead you to believe that every expression should be logically derivative from its composite parts. In fact natural languages are full of expressions whose meaning cannot be correctly deduced by assembling the parts according to some rules. That's just the way it is, and we'd better get used to it.

That's not to say you shouldn't use "couldn't care less" in speech. But there's no basis for interpreting "could care less" to mean that the person cares more than the bare minimum possible, or for trying to inflict some notion of one being right and the other wrong on other speakers of the language.

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"This country" - which country? It's important in this context. –  slim Dec 22 '11 at 11:53
    
Sorry: that was careless of me. I meant I came to the US at 8. –  iconoclast Dec 23 '11 at 17:57

One interpretation I haven't seen here yet is that I'm doing it a favor, whatever it is, by caring just a teeny bit, BUT I COULD CARE LESS. So don't push your luck, it.

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Don't use Could care less outside of the USA. In the USA it's just one of those things. Language doesn't have to be logical.

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One answer that hasn't been mentioned may be the simpler of the solutions to why "I could care less" is the more prevalent variant. It's easier to say. English is full of contractions and "pronounceable" acronyms. If given similar phrases I would suspect that most people would choose the shorter phrase. Consider the fact that no one has put in "I could not care less" into the mix.

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By this reasoning, "could", "would" and "should" should be replacing "couldn't", "wouldn't" and "shouldn't" in general, but I don't see that happening. When it comes to etymology, "easier to pronounce" arguments are often presented, yet seldom hold water. What's easy to pronounce is subjective, it differs greatly even between native speakers of the same language. There are many words that could be pronounced in a much "easier" way, yet aren't. And there are languages in which every single word is "utterly unpronounceable", yet thousands of people speak them fluently (Khoisan, anybody?). –  RegDwigнt Nov 30 '10 at 1:20

I think the correct expression is "I could not care less". There are many examples of idioms which are mixed up with other idioms, or simply quoted incorrectly. Most of these don't make any sense, some are quite amusing.

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I think this is comparable to "I couldn't care less" - I care so little that I could not possibly care even less than that.

"I could care less" - I care quite a lot, but I could choose to care a little less than that.

Both are grammatically correct. They mean the opposite of each other. The first one is more common in my experience.

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Almost nobody ever uses the phrase "I could care less" to mean "I care a lot, and potentially could care a lesser amount than now". In order to convey that meaning you'd have to emphasize the could or something. In normal speech "I could care less" means "I couldn't care less". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 25 at 14:11
    
That just seems counter-intuitive to me. –  ZenLogic Jul 25 at 14:14
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It may be counter-intuitive, but that's how it's used and that's what people understand. The contradiction between what the words appear to say, and what people mean, is why this particular phrase is subject to so much peeving. People get annoyed when they hear it because it sounds like an error. But linguistically, if enough speakers make an "error" long enough, it stops being an error and becomes just a way people say things. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 25 at 14:57
    
As an analogy: in some languages you use one negative word to negate something (English: Do not eat that). In others, you use two. (French: Ne mange pas ça). In this case, we have an English phrase that is negated with zero negatives. It works because spoken language is not boolean logic. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jul 25 at 14:59

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