April 13, 2005

Wrong for so long

The O-Zone Fan Forum is a site for fans of Ohio State University sports teams. It includes an Off-Topic Forum, where recent posts deal with things like Country & Western songs that mention Ohio, the inability of neighborhood "kindergarden age children" to spell God, and so forth. Every once in a while, forums.the-ozone.net shows up in our referrers' log, and this happened again over the past couple of days, because '86Buck remarked (in response to a post by B2 about the idiom "could care less") that

I suppose it's been wrong for so long (1946) that it's "accepted" now...like / gay couples or bastards.

with a link to a Language Log post. (Where the offending idiom is dated only to 1966...)

Additional contextual flavor was provided by Topspin, who in response to B2's question

Isn't there a term for the use of a phrase in direct opposition to its "face" logic?


Don't know the name of the term, but "yes dear" is used in that way around here.

Before everybody gets all worked up into a redneck vs. intellectual lather, let me get to my point, which is that '86Buck and Camille Paglia are siblings under the skin. They both look back to a cherished alignment of truth, morality, logic and tradition, now nearly lost to a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters. At the same time, each would likely see the other as a perfect symbol of everything that's gone wrong.

Some enterprising philosopher or social scientist ought to trace the relations between linguistic ideologies and other strands in the great tapestry of modern thought. Like metabolic alternatives among bacteria, attitudes towards language and language use seem to diffuse and recur through the space of human personality, culture and politics. The patterns are certainly not random, but they don't line up with social and political groups in any easy way either.

[Update: Benjamin Zimmer emails

Digital newspaper databases now allow us to date "could care less" back to 1955, 11 years before the earliest citation currently given by the OED.

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

And "couldn't care less" can now be dated to 1944 (the OED had 1946).

'Danger List' by Christianna Brand
Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1944, p. 18
"I couldn't care less, darling," said Frederica who, being on duty in the ward, could not go to the party.

Given the expected resistance of editors to "could care less", the fact that it appears in print 11 years after the first citation for "couldn't care less" suggests to me that the two expressions probably arose at essentially the same time, like quark-antiquark pairs in a high-energy collision.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 13, 2005 01:37 PM