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Can We Settle This Once and For All?

By Donna Sherman | Miscellaneous | October 20, 2010 |

By Donna Sherman | Miscellaneous | October 20, 2010 |

Because it really has gone on long enough. “I could care less.” What is it about this phrase, this word-combo, that renders the speaker suddenly, fleetingly, unable to comprehend the simple nuances of the English language? Other faux-pas of the common vernacular may be as heinous, but at least they’re somewhat understandable. “Irregardless”? Clearly the speaker has heard the word “regardless” and has heard the preposition “ir-” and has almost certainly heard the two used together at some point because it’s fucking everywhere, and it sounds like a real English word, so by God, they will use it as one. Fine. Understandable. Hand them a dictionary and clear up the mess. Bemused means amused? Well, no, not really, but they sound the same, so I guess I can see where the confusion stems from. Again, a dictionary would solve that problem in a second.

English is a funny language. Flammable means inflammable, and Toronto traffic reporters would like you to both “speed up” and “slow up.” It’s silly, but at least the meaning of the words is there in the statement. But “I could care less”? You don’t need a dictionary for any of those words. Yet they still manage, as a group, to thoroughly destroy the credibility of many an otherwise intelligent human being. And these very same human beings know full well the definitions of each of those four words separately, or are at least capable of using them correctly in other situations, so WHAT, exactly, is going on here?

Let’s dissect the sentence. I: subject. Could: modal auxiliary verb used to express conditional possibility. Care: infinitive verb complemented by “could.” Less: quantifier in the truncated sentence “I could care less,” but negative comparative in the complete sentence “I could care less about that.” OK.

But for those of us who aren’t linguistics professors, or writers with an internet connection and too much time on our hands, there is a simpler way of telling that this sentence is wrong. Intuition.

Anyone who has grown up speaking English should be able to figure out what’s wrong here. Because they know English. I could care less = it is possible for me to care less = why the hell is this statement-worthy? That’s like me saying it is POSSIBLE for me to wear no clothes. I could be naked. OK, yeah, that’s possible, but I’m not, and we all know why, so, there’s really no need to bring it up.

Of course, there are times when this phrase is appropriate, albeit awkward sounding. A mosquito has bitten me on the hand. Well, I do care about that. I have, in the past, cared about other things less than that, so it is thus possible for me to care less about this incident. I could care less. Again, of course, this is a useless statement, and you’d probably be more likely to say something along the lines of “oh, shit,” or “fucking mosquitoes,” or “do I care that I was bitten by a creature that could be carrying malaria or West Nile, or parasites, or Rift Valley fever, Ross River Fever, or yellow fever and dengue fever, or many other fevers, or some other horrible, terrifying disease? Yes, I do care. I care A LOT.”

But what I am fed up with are people who just clearly have no idea what they are talking about. Actually, no, what I’m fed up with is that the use of this phrase has reached near epidemic proportions, and no one calls these people out on it, and I just can’t understand why. “Man, I hated that movie. I could care less what Peter Parker would like on emo.” Oh, you could, could you? Really? It is possible for you to have cared less about that happening? Thanks for sharing. Well I’ve got news for you, buddy. Those words don’t mean what you think they mean. Either that, or

  • you really, truly could find other things on the list of your life to care less about, so
    this is higher up on said list than those things, in which case

  • you actually did wish to see what Parker would like with a sad, bad wig and a case of whiteboy dancitis, which means that

  • you’re pleased that this image is now stuck with you for the foreseeable future, and so

  • your criticism makes no damn sense, and

  • I don’t like you.

    I could NOT care less what you have to say, because you clearly have no idea what you’re talking about.

    If you want to have an impact, say it properly. “I could not care less.” It can be modified in so many fun ways: I could not possibly care less. If I was dead, I couldn’t care less. These are statements worth stating. Of all the levels of caring I could possibly have for this situation, the level I have landed on is the absolute, bottom-of-the-rung nadir, the pinnacle of not caring. If it happened in front of me, I would wait for something else to happen before I yawned and scratched my ass because the amount of caring I couldn’t do would be that much.

    Is this maybe a silly thing to focus on in a world where “grrrl” (that’s three rs — three rs and no vowels) can be added to the Oxford English Dictionary (yes) (seriously), but I think it matters. Everyone knows and complains that our internet-addicted, instant-messaging culture is bringing about the destruction of the English language, but at least when kids “lol” or “rofl” or whatever the fuck else they’re coming up with these days to do to each other, both the sender and recipient, or speaker and listener, understand the sentiment that is trying to be expressed. At least this Newspeak follows its own internal logic, albeit stupid and incapable of expressing anything more complicated than the wish of one to bestow *hugs* upon another in order to ease their :’(. But “I could care less”? It follows no rules. It’s just a statement that has somehow been accepted to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means, without the speaker needing to employ the use of a sarcastic tone, and that is just confusing, stupid, and not at all OK and we should not stand for it anymore.

    Who is with me?

    Donna is a freelance writer with a BJ from Carleton. That’s right, her university gave her a Bachelors of Journalism. What did you think she meant? She can be reached by email here, but on second thought, please don’t tell her what you thought she meant.

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