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I came across this exchange between Fanny Price and Miss Crawford in "Mansfield Park" near the end of Chapter 29.

The phrase does seem to be a saying. Has anyone conjectured that it could be a source for the idiom, "I could care less"?

"I know nothing of the Miss Owens," said Fanny calmly.

"You know nothing and you care less, as people say. Never did tone express indifference plainer."

"I could care less" could be an abridgement of "I know nothing and care less," a simplification that avoids witticism and heightens the sense of indifference.

We can be sure that Fanny was not speaking sarcastically, so that Miss Crawford must have been mistaken about the tone that expresses indifference most plainly.

It would have been delicious if Fanny had turned to her and replied: "I could care less, dear heart."

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    This idiom is discussed extensively at Which is correct 'could care less' or 'couldn't care less'?.. I am not sure if anyone quoted from Jane Austen - but you may find that this adds to that particular debate which was widely discussed - with large numbers voting. – WS2 Oct 8 '15 at 6:47
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    No, this is not the same as that. For one thing, no modal is involved ("care less" not "could care less"). The text is merely a criticism in dialogue that says "you care less than nothing" which is hyperbolic but otherwise unremarkable. – Robusto Oct 8 '15 at 7:23
  • The "as people say" is interesting though. If it was a common idiom, it's a bit of a shame that it fell out of favour. I'm going to start using it myself... – JHCL Oct 8 '15 at 8:13
  • I think adding the word "even" before "less" is a good idea. As in , "I know nothing and I care even less." (Or, "I know nothing and care even less.") That way, the confusion between "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less" is avoided, plus I think with the extra word the sentence simply sounds better. I think I'll start using it, too, @JHCL. Don – rhetorician Oct 9 '15 at 0:54
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Edit: The answer is, "Yes, Henry Churchyard," for those who TL;DR.

The idiom of knowing nothing and caring less is still active, witness the Tim Rice lyric:

You know nothing about me and care even less

http://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/aida/pastisanotherland.htm

I ought to have used Google instead of DuckDuckGo to learn:

http://alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxcouldc.html

The idiom "couldn't care less", meaning "doesn't care at all" (the meaning in full is "cares so little that he couldn't possibly care less"), originated in Britain around 1940. "Could care less", which is used with the same meaning, developed in the U.S. around 1960. We get disputes about whether the latter was originally a mis-hearing of the former; whether it was originally ironic; or whether it arose from uses where the negative element was separated from "could" ("None of these writers could care less..."). Henry Churchyard believes that this sentence by Jane Austen may be pertinent: "You know nothing and you care less, as people say." (Mansfield Park (1815), Chapter 29)

So a nominal answer to my question is, Yes, others have thought so.

This saying was common rhetoric:

I ask you to vote for George Stoneman for Governor of California, ... These men I know to be honest; I will vouch for them. The others I know nothing about, and care less. (1882)

http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18820810.2.24

(The orator goes on to say, "It is not right to attack Stanford and Co. while we are willing to uphold the system." Which applies today equally in Silicon Valley.)

Since idiom thrives on simplification, it seems at least possible that "Blah, blah, blah care less" finds a convenient formulation in "I could care less", obviating the need to establish a preceding clause.

"Whatever. I could care less."

One could suggest: "I could very well be one of those who nothing about it and care less." The positive sense of "care less" is retained from the underlying idiom.

The endless discussions about grammar and logic may be beside the point.

As Austen tells us, all the meaning is conveyed in the tone.

  • "Know nothing and care less (than nothing)" is certainly not the same as "I could care less (than I do now)." – Andrew Leach Oct 8 '15 at 21:26
  • @AndrewLeach That was not the question. The answer is "Henry Churchyard." – som-snytt Oct 9 '15 at 0:09

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