The literalist

Today’s Mother Goose and Grimm, with a literalist Ralph coping with Grimm’s could care less:

could care less has been a perennial topic on Language Log and this blog. But in all the discussion among linguists and psycholinguists no one disputes that there’s an idiom here, and it has a negative element of meaning that is not overt. Ralph the literalist essentially denies this, implicitly taking the position that if Grimmy meant he couldn’t care less he should have said that.

On Language Log, a 6/20/05 posting by Mark Liberman, “The care less train has left the station”, with an inventory of 14 previous postings on the subject, then with a 6/29/05 addendum. I looked at several of the issues surrounding the idiom in a summary posting on ADS-L in 2009. (One answer at the time, about the history, from Ben Zimmer, who found couldn’t care less from the 1940s and could care less from the 1950s.)

My own focus then was mostly on two questions, about the origin of could care less and about the way it’s used now. Two distinct positions here, one from Steve Pinker and one from John Lawler. I wrote then:

Pinker maintains that “could care less” was sarcastic in origin and is sarcastic now, while Lawler maintains that it originated in strengthened negation and is a strengthened negation now (but is now a “stronger” negative than “couldn’t care less”).

The Language Loggers (primarily Mark Liberman, though others have contributed to the discussion as well) strongly favor Lawler’s account over Pinker’s, and in particular deny that “could care less” (whatever its origins) is now sarcastic in intent (or prosody), maintaining that it is now mostly a strong negative idiom with unremarkable prosody (though of course all sorts of expressions, including this one, *can* be deployed sarcastically).

As things stand now: I couldn’t care less continues, but I could care less thrives as well, though primarily in the U.S. — and it almost invariably conveys negation: its use for ‘it would be possible for me to care less’ (Ralph’s first explication above) seems to be virtually unattested (well, it’s not very useful), which means that I could care less is easily understood (and it’s even a bit shorter than the alternative).

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