Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Do We Care Less About "Could Care Less"?

In this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, I take over the "On Language" spot to pay tribute to the man who originated the column, William Safire. (You can already read the online version here.) It's not quite as personal as the remembrance I posted here after learning of Safire's death, but it's no less heartfelt. As preparation, I took a stroll through some of the thousands of columns that Safire produced over three decades, focusing especially on his first year of language punditry, 1979. Though many of his early columns stand the test of time, one example where he was less than on-target had to do with a popular peeve: "could care less."

On September 30, 1979, Safire devoted a few paragraphs of his column to consider how in common parlance "I could care less" means quite the opposite of what it says, namely, "I could not care less." Right out of the box, he asserts that this usage "seems to be petering out." He goes on to write:

The phrase first popped up around 1960, appeared in a letter to columnist Ann Landers in 1966 and in a few years began to cause concern as a barbaric attack on meaning. ... Usage seems to have peaked in 1973, when The Wall Street Journal headlined: "More and More Girls Flip for Gymnastics: Boys Could Care Less." A healthy derision set in. ... Maybe the attacks on the antimeaning helped; eventually, like most vogue phrases, it wore out its welcome.
Farewell, "could care less"! You symbolized the exaltation of slovenliness, the demeaning of meaning, and were used by those who couldn't care less about confusing those who care about the use of words to make sense.

With thirty years of hindsight, we can see that Safire was far too quick to dismiss "could care less" as a mere "vogue phrase" that was already on its way out. If anything, this turn of phrase has grown more entrenched over the years, and it's showing no signs of abatement in American English.

Hindsight also allows us to pin down the approximate age of the expression a bit more accurately, thanks to searchable newspaper databases. The year 1960 was a decent ballpark estimate (that was, in fact, when Ann Landers first fielded a reader complaint about "could care less" in her advice column), but I've been able to take it back another five years. Here is sportswriter Shirley Povich using it in 1955:

"The National League clubs have always shied from pitching left-handers against the Dodgers, but Casey Stengel could care less about the Dodgers' reputation for beating southpaws."
—"This Morning . . . With Shirley Povich," Washington Post, Sep. 25, 1955, p. C1

Notably, this is a mere 11 years after the first known usage of "couldn't care less," which I found in the archives of the Chicago Tribune:

"I couldn't care less, darling," said Frederica who, being on duty in the ward, could not go to the party.
—"Danger List" by Christianna Brand, Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1944, p. 18

When I brought these citations to the attention of University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, who wrote about the expression on Language Log in 2005, he commented: "Given the expected resistance of editors to 'could care less', the fact that it appears in print 11 years after the first citation for 'couldn't care less' suggests to me that the two expressions probably arose at essentially the same time, like quark-antiquark pairs in a high-energy collision."

It's true that newspaper editors of the past were resistant to printing "could care less" in their pages, at least in the early decades of usage. But they have by and large abandoned that struggle, despite Safire's wishful thinking that the expression was breathing its last gasp in 1979. Safire's own newspaper, the New York Times, is typically very conservative when it comes to usage matters, but even the Times has thrown in the towel. I compared results for "couldn't care less" versus "could care less" in the Times archive over the past four decades, and this is what I found:

"couldn't care less" "could care less"
ratio
1960-1969 245    5    2.04%
1970-1979 369    42    11.38%
1980-1989 274    77    28.10%
1990-1999 248    147    59.27%
2000-2009 259    194    74.90%

These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in the earlier decades, since the character recognition of scanned pages isn't entirely accurate. Also, there could be a number of false matches: an appearance of "no one could care less," for instance, should not count towards the "modern" sense of the expression, since it has the same negative polarity as the original, more logical, "couldn't care less." Despite such noise in the data, there's a very clear upward curve in the proportion of usage. While "couldn't care less" has held steady, the frequency of "could care less" has nearly tripled in the pages of the Times since Safire hastily declared it extinct.

Other databases of U.S. news outlets confirm this trend. (Elsewhere the historical rise has been more gradual, but the 75% ratio of "could" to "couldn't" currently found in the Times accords with other 21st-century journalistic sources.) Editors no longer resist printing "could care less," despite its seeming illogicality. The fact is, this is simply how people talk, and contemporary newspapers seek to reflect that reality. Mark Liberman reports that "could care less" has in fact been much more common in American speech for at least a decade or so. Based on a survey of sources compiling spoken American English, he estimates that "could care less" now outpaces "couldn't care less" by a ratio of about 5 to 1.

There are plenty of theories for how this state of affairs came to pass. (See, for instance, this post by Arnold Zwicky elsewhere on Language Log for a discussion of competing linguistic analyses, with further discussion linked here.) Regardless of how we got here, there's no denying that "could care less" is here to stay — even if you agree with Safire's initial assessment of it as a "barbaric attack on meaning."

One important lesson to learn from all of this: as the linguist David Crystal warned us in an interview last year, "Never predict the future with language!" Over time, I think Safire learned this lesson and contented himself in the role of language observer, not prognosticator.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 6th 2009, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Humpy Dumpty said that the words have the meaning I give them (and I do not recall the exact quote). However what seems to me to be of interest is not whether we say “I couldn’t care less” or “I could care less” (though as long as we follow the current grammatical rules we shall understand that the first means that it did not matter much, while the second means that one cared too much). If we understand both expressions to mean that it did not matter much (that is the two expressions are interchangeable), then what is of interest is to find out what was one did not care much about that changed from a percentage of 2.04% between 1960-1969 to a percentage of 74.90% between 2000-2009. Could have been the English Language? The beautiful language of Shakespeare? Of course one can imagine that similar changes happened within all the other languages and similarly the same question would come into one’s own mind related to all languages, as each language has at least one great poet that sang the beauty (which includes clarity, remember Wittgenstein?) of that language. And of course one other important question would arise: If “I couldn’t care less” has the same meaning as “I could care less” what is one supposed to say in order to make it clear that one means the opposite of “I couldn’t care less” or its synonym “I could care less” ? Please advise! Of course we can all agree that either way is right and has the same meaning. However, if we agree to this we would still need to find a new way of expressing its opposite (what an extraordinarily waste of energy! Would you not agree? I can bring examples from science: two or more terms for the same thing! (and unless the scientists insert a chip into our brain to enlarge our memory, having two or more terms for the same thing is quite hard to retain, especially when one asks oneself why would one would have to learn the same thing as being called this or that in order to recognize it in different papers) –and that only because some people are unwilling to learn their language properly!) Please, please, please advise!
Regards
Antonia Del Debbio
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Antonia: If “I couldn’t care less” has the same meaning as “I could care less” what is one supposed to say in order to make it clear that one means the opposite of “I couldn’t care less”?

"I couldn't care more"?
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Pat
I couldn't care less (since I'm already at rock bottom in not caring) what other people do. But I will never say "I could care less."
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
My wife and I have often chatted about "could care less" and "couldn't care less," and I think it does rate as a mystery of language--how words can convey our meaning without us being able to account for the role of each word.

For example, "nevertheless"--why does that mean what we take it to mean? "In so far as" is another, and I know given time the VT gang could contribute many more such words and phrases. We use them, people understand us, but we don't know why they mean what they do.
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 1:41 PM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
Let's call it a folk idiom, and be done with the conversation.
Tuesday October 6th 2009, 2:04 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Michael: My favorite illogical idiom is "head over heels." Doesn't that describe our usual, non-topsy-turvy bodily alignment? And then there's "having your cake and eating it too"...
Wednesday October 7th 2009, 12:55 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Antonia:If “I couldn’t care less” has the same meaning as “I could care less” what is one supposed to say in order to make it clear that one means the opposite of “I couldn’t care less”?

Ben: "I couldn't care more"?


Yes, but that was not my point, as "I couldn't care more" might as well become in time synonymous with “I could care more”. This would mean that for “I couldn’t care less” and its now synonymous expression “I could care less” we might end up having two antonymous expressions "I couldn't care more" and its possibly future synonymous expression “I could care more”, which would unnecessarily make it more complicated (as one would need to know which linguistic system, as I am explaining below, was used in order to understand its meaning). If we consider these expressions in context (and say for example that having or not having care is related to words), then we have:

“I couldn’t care less about words” (1)
“I could care less about words” (2)
"I couldn't care more about words” (3)
“I could care more about words” (4)


where the meaning in (1) conveys the idea of not having much interest in relation to words, the meaning in (2) conveys the idea of having too much interest in relation to words, the meaning in (3) conveys the idea of having a high interest in relation to words, and the meaning in (4) conveys the idea of not having enough interest in relation to words.

However, if we accept that “I couldn’t care less” is synonymous with “I could care less” we are also lead to accept that the two expressions are part of two different linguistic systems (each system with its own rules), in the same way we accept that 7+5 equals 12 in the decimal system and 7+5 equals 10 in the duodecimal system.
This means that “I could care less about words”, with the meaning of having too much interest in relation to words, is part of one linguistic system and that the same expression “I could care less about words” with the meaning of not having much interest in relation to words, is part of a different linguistic system. And if in mathematics such different systems might be useful and not hard to deal with (considering that it is a computer generally involved with such operations) when it comes to language it seems to me to be much more useful, instead of learning that “I couldn’t care less about words” is synonymous with “I could care less about words”, to learn what would be the synonymous expression of “I couldn’t care less about words” in French, or Japanese, or whatever other foreign language one might be interested in. So my point is that by accepting that “I couldn’t care less” is synonymous with “I could care less” would be something similar to a parent hearing a 2 year old saying “We have two feets” (as a result of overgeneralization) and accept it as correct, with the result that eventually, in time, we would not be surprised when hearing the parent himself saying “We have two feets”. And this means, taking the overgeneralization as an example, that if in the first linguistic system overgeneralization is a term for a grammatical error, in the second linguistic system it is not an error anymore: the grammatical rules changed. And if we assume that we want the grammatical rules changed, why do we want them changed? What would be the benefit?
Wednesday October 7th 2009, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Scott S. (Eureka, CA)
I think that the phrase "I could care less" carries with it the unspoken parenthesis "(but I sure don't)." This implication seems to invoke the subjunctive mode, as it invokes a hypothetical impossibility. Without the assumption of this implication, it is grammatically incorrect, but no one says it without that unspoken qualification. Doesn't that make it essentially grammatically correct? Are there other such cases in which such unspoken common thought affects grammar?
Thursday October 8th 2009, 4:17 AM
Comment by: ruchika C.
someone who was rather careless left out the 'nt after the could. And this mistake caught on for some inexplicable reason. It really makes me uncomfortable when i hear it or read it in print!

there's also
'i give a damn' or is it, 'i don't give a damn'? in India they're often used interchangeably.
Thursday October 8th 2009, 7:06 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Scott S.: I think that the phrase "I could care less" carries with it the unspoken parenthesis "(but I sure don't)." This implication seems to invoke the subjunctive mode, as it invokes a hypothetical impossibility. Without the assumption of this implication, it is grammatically incorrect, but no one says it without that unspoken qualification. Doesn't that make it essentially grammatically correct? Are there other such cases in which such unspoken common thought affects grammar?

When you say "(but I sure don't)" I assume that you mean "(but I sure don't care less)", which is what I was saying above: that it is grammatically correct. However, being grammatically correct does not mean that it is also synonymous with "I couldn’t care less" (and the discussion is about the interchangeable use of these two phrases considered, apparently for some time now, to be synonyms despite the fact that they have opposing meanings, and this is what is incorrect: their use as synonyms) because "I couldn’t care less" carries with it a different unspoken parenthesis (or we might also say that it answers to a different question).
If "I couldn’t care less" is an answer to the question “You don’t care much, do you?”, while "I could care less" is an answer to the question “You care too much, don’t you?

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Ben Zimmer's personal remembrance of William Safire.
William Safire, R.I.P.
Language bloggers reflect on Safire's passing.
More on Safire
VT contributor Mark Peters remembers Safire, as does his former research assistant Aaron Britt.