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I could’t care less/ I could care less
Posted: 21 January 2020 03:00 PM   [ Ignore ]
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A funny take on the expression, but it does make sense.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw

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.”

They’re informal, but they can’t mean the same thing.

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Posted: 21 January 2020 05:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Words mean what people understand them to mean. They have no inherent meaning. I could care less and I couldn’t care less are two lexical units, two idioms, that cannot be divided into smaller parts. They both carry the same meaning. The fact that one has a not in it, a word that would normally indicate negation, is irrelevant. You can’t break an idiom down. It’s not confusing because everyone understands what it means.

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Posted: 21 January 2020 06:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Words mean what people understand them to mean. They have no inherent meaning. I could care less and I couldn’t care less are two lexical units, two idioms, that cannot be divided into smaller parts. They both carry the same meaning. The fact that one has a not in it, a word that would normally indicate negation, is irrelevant. You can’t break an idiom down. It’s not confusing because everyone understands what it means.

Literally, they don’t carry the same meaning, and it might be confusing for some people.  We have similar arguments with flaunt/flout; which can be quite confusing.

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Posted: 22 January 2020 01:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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There is a slight difference in tone between the two IMO.

“I couldn’t care less” is a long-established intensifier idiom of “I don’t care”, definitely more offhand than the phrase it comes from.

“I could care less” is a further refinement of the idiom as expressed by someone who wants to inject (even) more irony or sarcasm into the equation. A step further up the tree than the one with the negation.

So if you wanted to argue for a semantic difference between the two, the series would be thus:

I don’t care --> I couldn’t care less --> I could care less

From straight matter of fact to ironic offhandness. And in chronological order too I would think…

Whatever the truth of that theory, I perceive that difference between them (just like Humpty) at least.

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Posted: 22 January 2020 03:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Literally, they don’t carry the same meaning, and it might be confusing for some people. 

You cannot analyze an idiom literally. That’s the definition of an idiom.

And with the exception of a non-English-speaker encountering could care less in writing, which is the case with all idioms precisely because they don’t carry the literal meaning, I cannot imagine a real-life situation where it would be confusing.

The same is true with head over heels in love. It makes no sense if you try to understand it literally, yet no one complains about that one.

We have similar arguments with flaunt/flout; which can be quite confusing.

A different case entirely. These are similarly spelled words with different meanings. They’re not idioms. But again, misuse of either is rarely confusing in context.

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Posted: 22 January 2020 07:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The same is true with head over heels in love. It makes no sense if you try to understand it literally, yet no one complains about that one.

Actually I can remember complaining quite tiresomely about the senselessness of head over heels as a child, but eventually gave up and reluctantly accepted it. Though I must say I was surprised to find that according to the OED, it is about 270 years younger than the impeccably logical heels over head (first sighting of the latter c 1400, against 1678 for the former). Why on earth would the logical version be supplanted by the meaningless one? Truly, language is a mystery.

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Posted: 22 January 2020 08:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Logophile - 21 January 2020 03:00 PM

A funny take on the expression, but it does make sense.


They’re informal, but they can’t mean the same thing.

They, quite literally, do.

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Posted: 22 January 2020 09:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Words mean what people understand them to mean. They have no inherent meaning.

That is a generalization, or perhaps just a subjective viewpoint. In a newspaper article a writer misused the word approbation to mean admonishment, condemnation, when in actuality it has the opposite meaning. The writer understood it to mean the incorrect meaning. When a reader alerted the newspaper the editor had to acknowledge the error and issue an amendment. (I brought this up in a previous thread) I, as well, alerted a newspaper when an environment editor and assignment editor wrote an article about spiders and identified the study as etymology rather than entomology. I also commented on an earlier thread about a similar mistake when a writer confused etiology with etymology.  I don’t think we can say that these words “mean what people want them to mean”.

You cannot analyze an idiom literally. That’s the definition of an idiom.

I agree with the phrase, I could care less, but, I couldn’t care less, which is colloquial—a slight distinction from idiomatic—is also literal.

The same is true with head over heels in love. It makes no sense if you try to understand it literally, yet no one complains about that one.

I think that is a faulty analogy, because head over heels in love is metaphorical.

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Posted: 23 January 2020 03:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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In a newspaper article a writer misused the word approbation to mean admonishment, condemnation, when in actuality it has the opposite meaning.

Again, a non sequitur. This situation isn’t remotely the same as could care less. It’s not the case that an individual can determine what a word or phrase means, but the collection of speakers in general can do so. Everyone understands what I could care less means. No one will misunderstand you if you use it. That’s different from a individual, or a small number of individuals, using a word to mean something that most people don’t understand it to mean.

I agree with the phrase, I could care less, but, I couldn’t care less, which is colloquial—a slight distinction from idiomatic—is also literal.

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. You seem to have left something off. Literal what?

But colloquial and idiom are two entirely different things, and a phrase can be both. Colloquial is simply an informal mode of speech. An idiom is a phrase that carries a meaning that cannot be determined from the literal meaning of the words it comprises.

I think that is a faulty analogy, because head over heels in love is metaphorical.

Again, two entirely different concepts. Something can be both metaphorical and idiomatic.

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Posted: 23 January 2020 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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The same is true with head over heels in love. It makes no sense if you try to understand it literally, yet no one complains about that one.

I think that is a faulty analogy, because head over heels in love is metaphorical.

But head over heels by itself can be used literally, as when one describes the trajectory of someone who slips on a banana skin. If you aren’t familiar with the idiom it is absurd, as my 4-year-old self complained. The metaphorical sense only exists because the literal sense does.
And I think there is an argument for considering even the earlier and more logical heels over head as an idiom rather than a mere colloquialism. After all, one could just as accurately say toes over head or feet over head, but we don’t; it is ‘established by custom’, no doubt on account of the alliteration, that heels is the mot juste.

NB that a similar reversal took place with have your cake and eat it (another idiom that irked my 4-year-old self - Lord, I was an annoying child) which started out the logical way around: the OED’s first citation, from 1546, is ‘Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?’. Interestingly, the un-updated OED entry of 1888 shows no indication that the compilers had ever heard of the modern form.

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Posted: 23 January 2020 08:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Words mean what people understand them to mean. They have no inherent meaning.

Again, a non sequitur. This situation isn’t remotely the same as could care less. It’s not the case that an individual can determine what a word or phrase means, but the collection of speakers in general can do so. Everyone understands what I could care less means. No one will misunderstand you if you use it. That’s different from a individual, or a small number of individuals, using a word to mean something that most people don’t understand it to mean.

I think we are communicating at cross-purposes. My comment was not a non sequitur; the examples I submitted were directed specifically at Lewis Carroll’s quote, which you used to support your claim that words mean what people understand them to mean. I think that’s a generalization and is unrelated to Carroll’s concept, which he explained in his book, Symbolic Logic: “...I maintain that any writer of a book is fully authorized in attaching any meaning he likes to any word he intends to use.  If I find an author saying at the beginning of his book, ‘Let it be understood that by the word white I shall always mean black’ I meekly accept his ruling, however injudicious I may think it. “

Flout/flaunt, as you said, “...misuse of either is rarely confusing in context.” Are you also applying that concept in writing?

I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. You seem to have left something off. Literal what?

I was trying to say that, I couldn’t care less is both idiomatic and literal.

Again, two entirely different concepts. Something can be both metaphorical and idiomatic.

I concur, but, head over heels in love, is metaphorical, I couldn’t care less is not.

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Posted: 24 January 2020 03:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Logophile - 21 January 2020 03:00 PM


They’re informal, but they can’t mean the same thing.

They’re informal, and—in my experience of the way people use them—they mean the same thing.

I have not investigated this, but suspect that the couldn’t care less idiom is becoming less common than the
could care less form. That’s for American English.  Other Englishes may have other preferences and may be evolving differently, or not evolving.

BlackGrey’s continuum of nuance seems plausible, but I haven’t noticed the distinction in spoken American English.

Years ago I was teaching English to non-native speakers, and the difficulties resulting from literal translation of idioms and phrasal verbs (hmmm… are these sometimes idioms?) was discussed.  A student asked if there was a clear difference between

hanging out

and

hanging around.

If language were logical and operated with mathematical precision, the answer would be yes, given the difference between out and around.  Yet there are some contexts in which the meaning is the same, both in the intent of the speaker and the way a listener understands each expression.

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Posted: 24 January 2020 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I would say there is a distinct difference. To hang out implies that a specific activity, albeit unspecified, is being conducted. To hang around implies that there is no focused activity. To hang out on the basketball court means you’re playing a pick-up game of ball. To hang around a basketball court implies that you’re present, but not doing anything, not even actively spectating. Hang around is generally negative, hang out is neutral or positive.

But the distinction is only something one will pick up through familiarity with the language

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Posted: 24 January 2020 08:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I have not investigated this, but suspect that the couldn’t care less idiom is becoming less common than the could care less form. That’s for American English.  Other Englishes may have other preferences and may be evolving differently, or not evolving.

I don’t think I have ever known a Rightpondian say or write could care less; and I think I would have noticed, because it always gives me a slight ‘no, that’s weird’ jolt when I encounter it used by Leftpondians.

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Posted: 25 January 2020 07:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Syntinen Laulu - 24 January 2020 08:31 AM


I don’t think I have ever known a Rightpondian say or write could care less; and I think I would have noticed, because it always gives me a slight ‘no, that’s weird’ jolt when I encounter it used by Leftpondians.

Same. I’ve never heard it from a British, Irish, Australian, NZ or South African person.

Is it common in Canada? Is it prevalent throughout the US or just in some areas?

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Posted: 25 January 2020 08:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Google Ngrams shows that could care less is used in British edited prose, but much less frequently than in American.

A look at the NOW Corpus (News on the Web) shows it appearing from English-speaking sources all over the world, but again apparently less frequently than in the US. (There’s no easy way to do geographically limited searches using the web interface, and getting real statistics from NOW would be a project of several hours, which I don’t have at the moment.)

To say you’ve never heard it from the mouth of a Brit, etc., is probably confirmation bias at work. You notice it in Americans because you’re conditioned to recognize it as a marker of American speech, but it slips by unnoticed when a non-American uses it.

[ Edited: 25 January 2020 08:41 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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