July 16, 2004

Most of the people in the world could care less

...and I often feel the same way. That's what Charles Bukowski wrote in 1986 about an argument with his "Ivy League friends". I'm beginning to feel like one of those people who answers a dinner-party question at a whole lot greater length than anyone at the table really wanted to hear, but I said I'd explain more about an alternative to Steve Pinker's "could care less is sarcastic" theory, so here goes. I promise that this is the last you'll hear from me on the subject, at least for a while.

Could care less probably lost its "not" by means of a process that John Lawler has called "negation by association". Perhaps the best known example is the history of negation in French.

Stage #1
Stage #2
(current formal) 
(a) step
= at all
→(second part of negation)
Stage #3
(current colloquial)

This process starts out with intensification of negation by providing a minimal object:

I won't move  →  I won't move an inch.
He hasn't eaten.  →  He hasn't eaten a bite.
They didn't drink.  →  They didn't drink a drop.
She doesn't owe you.  →  She doesn't owe you a red cent.

The general idea is that X won't VERB anything at all, not even a tiny little Y.

For this to work, the object has to evoke a scale of degrees of VERBing, and so many of these objects are really adverb-like measure phrases. An analogous process applies with minimal adverbs of various sorts:

I won't stop for an instant.
She won't put up with the tiniest slight.

A similar process of intensification can be accomplished by maximizing rather than minimizing, for example when the issue is the size of a time interval during which something is not true.

He hasn't visited in ages.

In some cases, the intensifier becomes a "negative polarity item", which strongly prefers to occur in negative contexts (or in questions and some other related places):

She doesn't have a red cent.
?She has a red cent.

I haven't seen them in ages.
?I've seen them in ages.

At this point, the intensifier is not longer a free agent, but has become a sort of contractual associate of the negation. Another reasonable step is for the negative-associated intensifier to learn to stand again on its own, expressing the negative meaning without needing the negative morpheme at all. This has happened in colloquial French with pas. It hasn't happened in American English with most negative polarity items, but it might some day. Sporadic individual developments in that direction are common among children -- a kid I know used to use anything to mean "nothing" -- "What do you want to drink?" "Anything."

The case of "could care less" is a bit more complicated. "Don't care" is intensified by the modal could in combination with the degree adverbial less:

I don't care.
I don't care even a tiny bit.
I couldn't care less (than I do). = "I care so little that there is no careable amount that is less".

The structure is more complicated, but the general method of intensification is essentially the same -- to insist on the minimality of the degree of caring.

The next step is then similar to the loss of ne in French ne...pas, except that the pattern in which the original negation can be lost involves the discontinuous pattern could...care less as well as a negation.

The process has been generalized to give with a variety of MSOs ("minimal scatological objects"):

I could give a {damn|shit|hoot|(flying) fuck|crap|rat's ass}

The MSO can be an elaborate nonce formation ("a gnat's left testicle"; "a fart in a tornado"; "a rat's hairy scrotum").

The corresponding couldn't forms also occur, though mostly less often. This is a case where neither could nor couldn't makes an especially transparent contribution to the meaning -- didn't/doesn't/don't are more straightforward, and also more common. Google has:

___ give a rat's ass
___ give a shit
___ give a flying fuck

The could/couldn't give a MSO forms seem to be modeled on the could/couldn't care less pattern. And the influence seems to go both ways, since forms like "I didn't care less" and "Why should I care less" seem to be modeled on the give a MSO pattern.

I'll end by reiterating that "could care less" has nothing to do with teenagers or even youth. It appeared in print more than 30 years ago in the Washington Post, and it's recently been used by John Kerry, George W. Bush -- and me. In the unmonitored speech of Americans of all regions, classes and ages, it's much more common than the original form "couldn't care less," and has been for at least ten years.

My current guess is that the ratio is about 5 to 1. As I pointed out earlier, "could care less" occurs in the Switchboard corpus and the American-transcribed portion of a (current, as yet unpublished) collection 16 times, to just one occurrence of "couldn't care less". A large part of the current collection was transcribed in New Zealand; in this portion, "could care less" occurs 37 times, versus 32 (alleged) instances of "couldn't care less". However, I've checked 8 of the 32 "couldn't care less" phrases, and 5 of the 8 are wrongly transcribed. No doubt the New Zealanders heard "couldn't care less" in those cases, but it's plain that the American said "could care less." Applying a similar correction to the rest of the set, we get 85% "could care less" overall in these conversations (73 vs. 13).

As one more example of could care less used by a non-teenager, here's more from Charles Bukowski's You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense, published in 1986 when the author was 66:

you know the old saying: it's all a matter of

either they're right and I'm wrong or I'm right and they're all
maybe it's some place in between.
most of the people in the world could care less
I often feel the same

If could care less were sarcastic here, it should be equivalent -- pragmatically if not poetically -- to write something like

most of the people in the world care a lot
I often feel the same

but I don't think it is.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 16, 2004 06:13 PM