There are two types of people in this world: those who say they couldn’t care less, and those who claim they could. The funny thing is, these people are usually trying to say the same thing.
But how can that be so?
Let’s take a closer look at these two phrases, both of which are widely used, but only one of which can logically convey its intended message.
The phrase “couldn’t care less” is used when the speaker wishes to express that they really don’t care at all about something.
If someone “couldn’t care less,” it means their capacity to care is already at rock bottom—they care 0 percent.
It’s been speculated that this expression originated in England, and was imported by American soldiers returning home from World War II.
However, as Merriam-Webster points out, there is evidence of the phrase being used even before the war, like in this example from the May 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan:
Exasperated, she jumped up. ”I couldn’t care less,” she said, “whether you come or go.”
But somewhere along the line, a moderated version of the phrase began to pop up—one that would seem to mean the opposite of its original form.
I Couldn’t Care Less… Or Could I?
The phrases “couldn’t care less” and “could care less” are understood to be synonymous, though the latter tends to be a major pet peeve for many readers and writers.
After all, how could two seemingly opposite statements be used to convey the same meaning?
Still, the phrase “could care less” has been turning up in print since as early as the 1950s in North America.
Just see this example below, taken from a 1954 issue of The Chilliwack Progress:
“He hasn’t heard from the department since. Apparently, they could care less.”
Wait… if they could care less, doesn’t that mean… they still care? At least a little?
No one seems to know for sure how this phrase evolved (or devolved?) to replace “couldn’t” with “could,” though some theories include attempted sarcasm, a lack of education, and claims that the phrase simply sounds better when written in the positive.
Others argue that the negative particle is dropped by less precise or less conscious speakers.
You know that feeling when you belt out the lyrics to your favorite song, then someone informs you that those aren’t actually the words? Then you realize that the lyrics that you chose really didn’t make the most sense after all.
That’s probably how people who say “could care less” feel once they’ve been corrected (or how they will feel after reading this article!).
And once they hear so many other people say “could care less” (which tons of folks do), it’s very easy to understand how this misguided rumor got started.
Could’t Care Less As an Adjective
When hyphenated, “couldn’t care less” can also be used as an adjective to describe something that’s characterized by a lack of care or consideration.
For example: I’m realy getting tired of his couldn’t-care-less attitude.
Whatever the reason, “could care less” remains incredibly common. In fact, both Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com have conceded that the two phrases mean the same thing, citing the fact that English is often illogical, and that frequent use has made it acceptable by default.
Also, both phrases are informal, so you wouldn’t use either in formal writing. (You could, of course, have some fun using either form in your novel’s dialogue; but pay attention, as your choice might reveal something about your characters!)
While both versions have come to be accepted in informal language, understanding the true meaning of the phrase might shift your bias in favor of “couldn’t care less”—and save you from ticking off some grammar nerds in the future!
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