Language experts actually have theories about why people say they "could care less." Grammar Girl digs deep to find the root of the problem.
When people tell me their pet peeves, they often mention the phrase “could care less.” They claim it should be “couldn’t care less.”
“It’s illogical. If you could care less, you still care. Don’t people get it?” they say.
Celebrities have even jumped on the cranky bandwagon. Both David Mitchell and John Cleese have made popular YouTube videos ranting about the illogical phrase “could care less.” Interestingly, both men are British comedians, and they’re both complaining, in particular, about Americans who use the phrase.
Do Americans Say ‘Could Care Less’?
Are Americans really more likely to say they could care less? It appears so, at least when you look at how often that phrase shows up in American books Google has scanned versus British books Google has scanned. It shows up a lot more often in the American books.
That could mean that Americans use it more, or it could mean that British editors are more strict about changing “could care less” to “couldn’t care less.” But the Oxford English Dictionary calls “could care less” a “U.S. colloquial phrase,” and the linguist Lynne Murphy, who blogs about the differences between British and American English, also notes that Americans say “could care less” far more often than the British.
I think we’re busted! Maybe we Americans are just more caring, so that even when we’re annoyed, we reserve some caring just in case we want to use it later. But probably not.
The Origins of ‘Could Care Less’ and ‘Couldn’t Care Less’
The phrase "I couldn’t care less" started in Britain and made its way to the United States in the late 1940s.
But it wasn’t long until Americans corrupted the phrase (if you’re prone to think of it that way). The first example of “could care less” in the OED is from 1966, and it is indeed from an American newspaper, but it sounds like something a regular person either said or wrote—not a journalist. It’s listed as coming from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, but I believe it may have actually come from a syndicated Ann Landers advice column. The sentence pops up in multiple newspapers when I do a Google search. It also sounds like it would come from an advice column. Judge for yourself. It reads:
My husband is a lethargic, indecisive guy who drifts along from day to day. If a bill doesn’t get paid, he could care less.
I think she’s asking for advice. (And as an aside, I wonder if she knows that those words about her lethargic husband are immortalized in the OED.)
Why People Say ‘Could Care Less’
Why did “patient zero” here say her husband “could care less,” and why do so many people say it today?
People have a few theories.
In the early 1990s, the well-known Harvard professor and language writer Stephen Pinker argued that the way most people say “could care less”—the way they emphasize the words—implies they are being ironic or sarcastic along the lines of the Yiddish phrases like “I should be so lucky!” which typically means the speaker doesn’t really expect to be so lucky. Michael Quinion of the wonderful World Wide Words website makes the same argument.
But I’m skeptical. Our long-suffering wife from the Ann Landers column doesn’t seem to be filled with irony or sarcasm. And even if the saying did start that way, I don’t think that’s how people use it anymore. I’ve definitely heard people say they “could care less” who don’t seem to be relying on any form of irony or sarcasm. Of course that's just my opinion, but as far as I can tell, they think "could care less" is just the way you say it.
Other linguists have argued that the type of sound at the end of "couldn’t" is naturally dropped by less-than-precise speakers. That seems a bit more likely to me. I thought of it when I walked by the Instant Pots in Costco the other day because I always thought they were called “Insta Pots.” A lot of people seem to drop that “nt” sound at the end of “instant,” just like they do at the end of “couldn’t.” And then once you hear a lot of people say “Insta Pot” or “could care less,” you might think that’s the actual name or phrase.
Regardless of the reason people say they could care less, it is one of the more common language peeves because of its illogical nature. To say you could care less means you have a bit of caring left, and that’s not the meaning people seem to want to convey.
What Should You Do?
Both Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com have weighed in and say “could care less” and “couldn’t care less” mean the same thing. Their reasoning is that both phrases are informal, English is often illogical, and people use the two phrases in the same way. “Could care less” has come to mean the same thing as “couldn’t care less.”
Nevertheless, if you want to avoid annoying people, it’s better to stick with "couldn’t care less.” Take it from someone who’s heard a lot of people complain about it.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times bestseller, "Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."