I could / couldn’t care less
Posted: 05 January 2008 05:12 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Surprisingly, forum search didn’t show anything.  My question is not the meaning, the logic or lack of same, which is “better”, or
whether one or both are ironic.  Those topics have been well beat to death elsewhere.  What I’m after is any information about first uses both in print and in undocumented speech. 

There is an argument raging quietly in another forum about the age of these expressions.  Printed ‘first use’ for the couldn’t form has been
stated as 1940s, with the could version coming a couple of decades later.  Yet one of the best informed members attributes his use of “I could care less”
to childhood, and a Scots-Canadian grandmother.  He is about sixty.  His statement follows:

My source of the expression is my mother, whose variant, learned from her Scots-Canadian mother, was so conservative she still said thinks like “I hied me” instead of “I hurried.” [...] The point has been validly been made that provincials and colonials sometimes preserve idiom now long-forgotten in BE, but current at the time of their emigration from the Home Isles. For my mother’s family that would be somewhat early in the 17th century.

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Posted: 05 January 2008 06:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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NewsPaperArchive has the “couldn’t” version as early as March of 1944 in the Northern Ireland edition of the Stars and Stripes. That’s not definitive, of course, just what’s in NPA’s database.

THE Office of the Chief Quartermaster announces in a bulletin to mess officers and cooks that “concentrated” vinegar will soon arrive in the ETO for Army kitchens. We couldn’t care less could you?

The following harrange printed in the Abilene (TX) Reporter-News in 1952 suggests that the phrase is fairly new…

London Daily News:
There is one sentence in the English language which, tolerant as this column strives to be, we would like to see banned. It is the sloppy, negligent “I couldn’t care less.” We are delighted therefore to see that Dr. R. V. Moore, the Headmaster of Harrow, has attacked it in vigorous terms. “This most devilish, insidious and fashionable of attitudes,” he called it.

It’s a marvelous prescriptivist rant.

The “could care less” version seems to show up (at NPA at least) around 1960 in an Ann Landers column in which a woman reports an argument that she and her girlfriend are having over which version is correct.  Ann Landers says that she “couldn’t care less.”

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Posted: 05 January 2008 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Many thanks for the prompt and good reply.  Prescriptivist and rant.  Good collocation.  Maybe it’s just me, but I have trouble imagining a prescriptivist doing much else than ranting, except when it’s fulminating.

Thanks to your Ann Landers—social prescriptivist?—mention, I found this:

This Morning . . . With Shirley Povich
> Washington Post, Sep 25, 1955, p. C1/1
> 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.

source:

http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0508A&L=ADS-L&P=14942

[ Edited: 05 January 2008 06:56 AM by cuchuflete ]
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Posted: 05 January 2008 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which is a great source for historical information about usage, concurs with those dates: mid-1940s for couldn’t care less and c.1960 for could care less. The DEU is from 1989, so it’s no surprise that the dates have been pushed back a bit by more recent finds--finding definitive dates of absolute first usage is almost always impossible.

Good find on the Povich quote. A bit of trivia: Shirley Povich, sportswriting legend for the Washington Post, is the father of TV talk show host Maury Povich.

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Posted: 05 January 2008 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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When I lived in England during the late 1940’s, there was a (female) character on a radio comedy show (can’t remember which), who used to drawl, several times during every show, “I couldn’t care less”.  WW2 was a very fruitful time for the development of slang terms; most of them soon faded away, but a few survived.

It strikes me that the gentleman from Harrow is more upset by the sentiment expressed, than by the expression itself.  “I couldn’t care less” is a sentence which conveys its meaning clearly and concisely. I can’t say the same of “I could care less”, which to me, at least, conveys very little, if anything at all.

(I read cuchuflete’s OP, and i know that I shouldn’t have written that last paragraph. But I’m not the first opinionated old fart who loves to see his own words in print. In an earlier age, I’d have written letters to “The Times")

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Posted: 05 January 2008 12:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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To lionello’s offer of distress- There are hundreds, if not thousands, of opinions about the expressions, including this bellicose collection: http://ask.metafilter.com/19780/Who-cares.
Military slang seems to have been the origin of the ‘not-less’ version also.  Have a look at the listserv link posted above for more on U.S. Army use of “could care less”.

[ Edited: 05 January 2008 01:26 PM by cuchuflete ]
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Posted: 05 January 2008 01:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Wow, there was a lot of idiocy in that thread.  Thanks for the memories.

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Posted: 05 January 2008 03:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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There was some discussion of “could[n’t] care less” in these threads:
What is the opposite of litotes?
could care less/couldn’t care less
Head over heals in love?

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Posted: 06 January 2008 08:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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from language log

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Posted: 07 January 2008 03:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Thanks, goofy.  I was going to go looking for that LL post.  Now I’ve saved my nickel.

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