The Dreaded “I Could Care Less” Turns 50

What’s your writing pet peeve?

From all the language pet peeves that I hear about, the phrase “I could care less” seems to peeve people the most. Well, let’s say it’s tied with “irregardless.”

Taken on its own, of course, if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, I could care less,” he’d be implying that he cares something about poor Scarlett. That his level of Scarlett Caring has exceeded zero.

But, also of course, we know that he meant that he doesn’t care at all. He couldn’t, in fact, care less.

So this is illogical and it drives people bananas.

Then again, other people argue that there’s an implied “but not very much” to be added to the end. Or that the phrase is intended solely as irony.

Personally, I’m not buying it. I think that people use it unthinkingly, just as they say, “head over heels” or “have your cake and eat it too” without really knowing where it came from or how it means what it means.

In any case, it’s here to stay, it doesn’t confuse anyone, and I think we need to collectively get over it. I don’t use it, but it’s time to stop cringing when other people do.

It was 50 years ago….

In October, 1960, “I could care less” made its first printed appearance, apparently only 11 years after its more respectable cousin. And its first printed appearance was an attack, with a writer asking Anne Landers to adjudicate its legitimacy. She said she couldn’t care less whether it was legitimate.

The Boston Globe has an article musing over how “couldn’t care less” seems to continue to bug people. Why do people go nuts over this phrase, but give a pass to other usages, like new meanings for “bemuse” and “aggravate” (both words that I’ve written about before)?

Why do some phrases feel like sand in the underwear for decades, while others become accepted almost overnight?

It can’t be because of logic. We have many illogical, but accepted, idioms in our language. So what is it?

See:

Boston Globe: “I could care less”

My post on “bemuse” and “presume”

My post on “aggravate”

My post on changing words like “transpire”

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2 Responses to “The Dreaded “I Could Care Less” Turns 50”

  1. Michael Silver
    October 28, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    I looked up the idioms you mention. Good stuff. I always wondered since they don’t make sense as they are used.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Have_one's_cake_and_eat_it_too

    Head of Heals is somewhat less interesting:
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/head-over-heels.html

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