Lexicon Valley

The Real Reason People Say “I Could Care Less”

If my wife were to say to me, “I’m concerned you’re eating too much pizza,” I might reply, “I could care less what you think.” 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Correspondence between state lawmakers and their constituents rarely makes national news, but when Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver sent an email reply to a Gulfport woman in March telling her that he “could care less” about her concerns, it did.

Media scrutiny of Oliver’s remarks was justified. The woman, Becky Guidry, emailed him to express sincere, substantive concerns about a pressing matter of public policy (namely a tax cut bill Oliver supports that Guidry considers fiscally irresponsible). Oliver’s catty response was an unnecessary and unbecoming escalation.

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Totally unjustified, however, are comments like this one posted on Talking Points Memo’s coverage of the story by “mombiethezombie”: “It’s ‘…couldn’t care less.’ If you’re going to be an [sic] flaming a-hole at least use the correct phrase.”

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As peanut gallery grammarians love to point out, the idiom “I could care less” literally means the opposite of what people like Oliver use it to mean. Indeed, if he were capable of caring any less than he does, that would mean he does care about Guidry’s concerns, at least a little. Oliver’s level of caring > zero, according to a literal reading of his words.

Such grammarians irk me. It is perfectly appropriate to use “I could care less” to mean that one does not care at all. In a 2014 post that appeared in Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, Arika Okrent mounted a defense of the idiom, and while I agree with her conclusion, I think her reasoning is flawed. Of her four theories, I reckon her idea that the phrase is sarcastic gets closest to the truth.

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I’m a journalist, not a linguist (Okrent is). I have no historical evidence to back up what I am about to assert. But as a matter of logic, it seems quite clear to me that “I could care less” is an example of what linguists call an “elliptical construction”—a clause that omits crucial words but is nonetheless comprehensible in context.

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If I walked toward the door and said to you, “Be right back,” you would understand me to mean, “I’ll be right back.” The “I’ll” is technically essential—without it, the sentence reads literally as an imperative in which I’m commanding you to come back. However, since I’m the one leaving and not you, my meaning is obvious, and thus “I’ll” is unnecessary, so I leave it out.

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Likewise, people who say “I could care less” are omitting the first part: “Like I could care less,” or, “As though I could care less.” Actually, they’re usually omitting a great deal more than that, which is why I understand how this idiom strikes so many people as being illogical.

Here’s what Oliver wrote to Guidry, with me supplying his omitted verbiage in brackets:

The people of our Great State overwhelmingly share my same or similar views on Government responsibility. I appreciate you going to the trouble to share yours with me, but quite frankly, and with all due respect, [you are complaining to me as though] I could care less [when, in fact, I couldn’t].

If Oliver is unable to care any less than he does, then there is only one quantity that could represent his level of caring: zero.

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It may appear that I’m torturing Oliver’s sentence into grammatical rectitude, but consider how people actually use “I could care less” in practice. They generally don’t use it where a simple “I don’t care” would suffice; its meaning is more specific.

If my wife were to ask me, “Do you want pizza or salad?” I might reply, “I don’t care,” meaning I would be happy with either pizza or salad.

If, however, my wife were to say to me, “I’m concerned you’re eating too much pizza, I think you should have salad,” I might reply, “[Like] I could care less what you think.”

In a defensive outburst motivated by my shame about my body composition, I’m mocking her for presuming that I would ever concern myself with her opinions about my diet. It’s not just that I don’t care; I’m telling her that I don’t care that she cares. It’s much more cutting (and, for the record, it’s something I would never actually say to my lovely wife).

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Oliver, likewise, isn’t just telling Guidry he doesn’t care about her concerns; he’s mocking her for believing that he would ever care about how some carpetbagger from Illinois thinks he should vote on a matter of Mississippi tax policy.

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and we shouldn’t turn around and mock Oliver for using a truncated idiom that is perfectly understandable in context. Instead, we should mock him for his Random Capitalization: “people of our Great State,” “views on Government responsibility,” etc.

I mean, seriously. You don’t just capitalize words because you think they’re Very Important.