June 29, 2005

Caring more or less

Ben Van Hof wrote in with a minority variant of "care less" that was new to me: "care or less".

I enjoy perusing Language Log occasionally (I'm not a linguist, but hey, language is interesting), and in light of your posts concerning "could (not) care less", thought you might like to hear about a variation that I grew up with: "couldn't care *or* less" (pronounced "couldn't carer less", with "care or" sounding like one word).  At least, that's how *I* always parsed it, and just accepted it as an (admittedly ungrammatical) idiom; to this day, seeing the phrase in print without the "or" looks odd to me. 

As Ben pointed out, a quick web search demonstrates that he's not not the only one with this variant:

I personally think Jesus could care or less about our individual political persuasions.
I could care or less what it looks like, as long as it rocks on game playing.
These are the individuals that could care or less about hunting, the future of the sport, and the future of the ducks.
And the group behind you is often made up of non-athletic bitter divorcees who could care or less how slow you’re moving.
You've got to remember that George is 100% motivated by money these days and couldn't care or less for the fans.
Who on the Broncos displayed a couldn't care or less attitude?
They could not care or less about the American public or what havoc that broadcast has created.

I'm disposed to classify this as an eggcorn, on the grounds that the extra "or" is an attempt to make better sense of the whole "(not) care less" bestiary.

The case is especially interesting phonetically. The syllable that Ben has spelled "-er" would be pronounced as an r-colored vowel -- a rhotic schwa -- which is essentially just a vocalic form of the syllable-final [r] in "care". So the pronunciation of "care or" is really just "care" with a rather long final [r]... a perfect substrate for eggcorning.

[Update: Chris Waigl points out there are many more web hits for "could care a less" -- 2,550 vs. 225 on Google, 861 vs. 72 on Yahoo.

My Pisces can be very loving one day and seem like he could care a less another day.
Whenever I called HW, they could care a less.
I could care a less about the Superman movie, since I don't like Bryan Singer and Superman is lame as a character.
Texas could care a less about oklahomans.
I for one could care a less what you or other Europeans think because you're quickly becoming nothing more than a continent size geriatric ward.

In "could care a less", the reduced vowel associated with the article "a" will assimilate in rapid speech to the following [l], which is acoustically similar anyhow, so that it winds up as a lengthened [l], likewise an excellent candidate for acoustic mis-parsing in either direction.

There are even a few hits for "could care of less":

You could care of less about the evil and deciept that the Democrats engage in.
And I'm gunna be nice and not put these bitches names down but there are ALOT chicks on this planet that I could care of less if they lived or died..
Of course people will downgrade, I know alot of people who could care of less about internet video or file downloads, and if the cheaper cable plan is there, they would downgrade in a heartbeat.

and a couple for "could care if less":

I could care if less if all 25 are homosexual.
Personally, I could care if less if cliques exist or don't exist because the fact is people are naturally going to click (no pun intended) with certain people better than others and will want to spend time with each other because they have similar interests.

(though I guess these last two might be typos echoing the "if" that follows "less"...)

Every time I poke around in an area like this, I'm amazed by the range of nascent constructional folk etymologies that are out there. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 29, 2005 03:39 PM