Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
This comic references the dichotomy between the literal meaning of the phrase "I could care less" and its idiomatic meaning in American English as an expression of indifference, synonymous with "I couldn't care less." Many people argue
that this use is incorrect and the phrase should only be "I couldn't care less," which is the original form of the expression and remains the standard form in British English
. This is the opinion expressed, for example, by the Weird Al Yankovic song "Word Crimes":
Like I could care less
That means you do care
At least a little
However, linguists point out that the strict application of logic to an idiom is inappropriate: many expressions seem on the surface to mean the opposite of the meaning they are used to convey (e.g. "head over heels"), and they defend "I could care less" on those grounds. The psychologist Steven Pinker argues in The Language Instinct that the phrase is sarcastic (cf. "Big deal!"), while linguist John Lawler explains it as a "Negative Polarity Item," a phrase that is practically only used in negated form, allowing the explicit negation to be omitted (a pattern often found in French).
In this comic, Megan feels alone because there is unavoidable difference between her understanding of her own words and the listener's interpretation, so while she sees discussion of semantics as being of potentially high social and emotional value, she doesn't think it has objective value. However, ironically, at the end of the comic, the meaning of "I could care less" with regards to Ponytail's behavior is ambiguous: either Megan is brushing off Ponytail's pedantry because she doesn't care about it (she couldn't care less) or she is hurt by Ponytail's focus on the details of her words rather than the emotional cues she should have learned over the course of their relationship (she actually could care less).
The title text refers to another word often used in ways some consider incorrect: "literally" (see 725: Literally). The sentence is also ambiguous, as it may mean that 'literally' or 'figuratively,' the speaker could or couldn't care less. Further, it implies that Randall considers the argument over whether literally may be properly used to mean 'figuratively' is petty in the same way. Later in 1735: Fashion Police and Grammar Police Ponytail is once again on the side of the grammar police and also in this comic the word literally is used.
Alternatively, it could mean that Megan cares too much about Ponytail's correction, considering her response to it.
In a further alternative, the title text could amount to a self-ironical evaluation on Randall’s part to the effect that he himself might be devoting too much of his time and energy to the meaning of the phrase in question, as evidenced by the comic itself.
The inverse image of Megan floating through space in the fourth panel, as well as her long introspection, is a reference to the five-part "Choices" series, starting at 264: Choices: Part 1.
- [The first three panels are slim compared to the next row below, and they only takes up the same space as the first two of the three panels below this row. Similarly the bottom row, also with three panels, take up less space, although more than the top row. But in this bottom row the empty space in the comic is to the left vs. to the right in the top row.]
- [Megan and Ponytail are walking together, Megan in front holds her arms out to the side.]
- Megan: ...Anyway, I could care less.
- [Zoom in on Ponytail holding up her hand (which can atypically be seen), finger pointing up.]
- Ponytail: I think you mean you couldn't care less. Saying you could care less implies you care at least some amount.
- [Back to Megan and Ponytail walking, both have their arms down.]
- Megan: I dunno.
- [The next panel supposed to be to the right of this is missing, instead the comic jumps to the next row. This fourth panel has inverted brightness, with a white Megan floating in a black void, with white text above her.]
- Megan: We're these unbelievably complicated brains drifting through a void, trying in vain to connect with one another by blindly flinging words out into the darkness.
- [Back to Megan and Ponytail walking.]
- Megan: Every choice of phrasing and spelling and tone and timing carries countless signals and contexts and subtexts and more,
- Megan: and every listener interprets those signals in their own way.
- Megan: Language isn't a formal system. Language is glorious chaos.
- [Zoom in on Megan's head.]
- Megan: You can never know for sure what any words will mean to anyone.
- Megan: All you can do is try to get better at guessing how your words affect people, so you can have a chance of finding the ones that will make them feel something like what you want them to feel.
- Megan: Everything else is pointless.
- [They have stopped walking as Megan holding a hand out has turned around facing Ponytail.]
- Megan: I assume you're giving me tips on how you interpret words because you want me to feel less alone.
- Megan: If so, then thank you.
- Megan: That means a lot.
- [Megan and Ponytail resume with their walking.]
- Megan: But if you're just running my sentences past some mental checklist so you can show off how well you know it,
- [Megan and Ponytail continue walking.]
- Megan: then I could care less.
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Another excellent comic by Randall. In case of interest to anyone a different perspective, David Mitchell did a wonder rant on this... "Dear America... | David Mitchell's SoapBox"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw 188.8.131.52 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
The only people who complain about this phrase are pedantic morons who have never heard such things as "head over heels".
Here, I've composed a list of common vernacular/slang idioms which are valid, clear, and diametrically opposed to their original meaning:
- "Head over heels"
- "Break a leg"
- "It's the shit"
- "That's bad"
- "She's phat"
- "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"
- "Irregardless" -- Cwallenpoole (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
- "Diametrically opposed" is redundant. The words mean the same thing. Sorry, when the topic of conversation is pedanticism I couldn't resist :P 184.108.40.206 22:17, 12 September 2015 (UTC)
- The reason I dislike "I could care less" is because it just grates me. It disrupts the flow of parsing language in my brain, throwing up a "wait, what?" exception that I have to expend far more mental energy than usual to correctly interpret the meaning of something in my head. I'm not being pedantic for the sake of uptight rule adherence and feeling superior (I play around with language and use it in non-standard forms all the time), I'm pedantic because it causes my brain real difficulties in processing the meaning of what a person's said. I mean I'm a woman with Asperger's (and a British one at that) so maybe things are a little different for me, but that's just why I personally strongly dislike this usage. The things on your list though are all different in some way to "I could care less", at least for me, for example:
- "Head over heels" - How is this an opposite meaning, exactly? Doesn't it give a rather nice metaphor for being giddy about something? Being hyperbolic and metaphorical doesn't make it an opposite meaning.
- Because your head is normally over your heels. Nothing special about it. Heels over head would be much more interesting...Silverpie (talk) 17:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- Personally I always think of it as your head being bowled over your heels - not the sort of "over" as in "higher gravitational potential energy", but in the same "around" sense of being "turned over" or "starting over". 220.127.116.11 03:58, 13 September 2015 (UTC)
- "Break a leg" - This is closer to being an opposite, but the exact opposite to wishing an actor good luck would be to wish them bad luck. The mutation to a slightly absurdist statement marks it out as having a different meaning, especially as "break a leg" isn't really used in any other context than to wish a person good luck. While it may be the case that "I could care less" is rarely (if at all) used in its literal form, there's still nothing to mutate it and obviously mark it out as a linguistic special usage case. It's also still how I'd expect someone to phrase it if they were actually telling me they could care less about something.
- The "Vaudeville theory" on this page is where I got my understanding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Break_a_leg --EE 18.104.22.168 13:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- "It's the shit" - Again, this is mutated. People aren't saying "it's shit", the word "the" handily tags it for my brain parser to handle differently.
- "That's bad" - Well, you've got me here actually. I mean, context (and tone) makes the meaning obvious but I can't objectively understand why this phrase doesn't cause me the same sort of difficulties at all. Perhaps because I grew up in the 80s, and a big part of my musical upbringing was Michael Jackson. ♬ A-hee-hee! Hoo! ♬
- "She's phat" - This is completely literal, "phat" is a slang term meaning excellent or attractive. It may be a mutation of the word "fat" or not, its etymology is uncertain, but it is indisputably a very different word now (much like how "orchids" means a species of flower rather than testicles, and "sinister" hasn't meant left in centuries).
- I understand it's an acronym: Pretty Hot And Tempting. --EE 22.214.171.124 13:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" - This is also completely literal, Freud meant that while he believed many things could have hidden, psychosexual meanings... that while sometimes a person might be puffing on a cigar due to some suppressed phallic desires... they could also just be puffing on a cigar because they're enjoying a nice cigar. That is to say, not everything has a hidden subconscious meaning, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, not a substitute object to fellate.
- "Irregardless" - Well yes, the suffix added to "regardless" here would usually invert its meaning, but "irregardless" isn't actually a word that existed before it came into use with its current meaning so it's not like saying a previously established and defined word (or phrase).
- Anyway, while I do believe language is flexible and mutable, this particular phrase fails the easily interpretable test for my brain. I try not to be too uptight about it, but it really does irritate me in a way I can't help. Obviously my opinion is not the only one, so that's just my 1.29587 British pence on the matter :D 126.96.36.199 12:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- (In response to Cwallenpoole, not 188.8.131.52, who makes good points that I didn't actually read first!) "Head over heels" is of course "head over (and down), heels (upwards) (...and continue this rotation to its logical conclusion)"; "Break a leg" has a number of possible origins (I always assumed wishing luck was unlucky, thus the inverse, but several "the leg not being yours" versions also ring true); "It's the shit" is using a somewhat unfortunate object (certainly if you miss out the "the") that is a short-cut off-colour superlative like "the dog's bollocks"; "bad==good" I always assumed was "what's bad to the establishment is good for our own clique"; "phat" is far too modern for me, but probably arises a similar positive superlative with some counter-culture anti-standard spelling; Cigars being cigars don't sound diametrically opposed, to me, although who knows what went on in Freud's head!; "Irregardless" is an obvious portmanteau/malapropism blend that is so easy to create. - Or so I would personally explain these.
- Here's an additional one, though, if you care for it: "Cheap at half the price". It sounds wrong if you dig deep and work out that it must mean "It is not more than or equal to twice the actually fair price you should have been asking" (i.e. it's less than double the price). But I've always internally rationalised it as really saying "If this figure you mention actually were only half of the full price you are truly asking for, the real price would still be considered cheap" (i.e. it's less than half price). Or it could just be obfuscated salesman patter, i.e. telling the truth (still making a profit, but less than a 100% mark-up) but using weasel-words and terminology that create misleading imagery in the listener's mind. i.e. No crime, no foul, should Trading Standards happen to come-a-visiting, one day... 184.108.40.206 13:21, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- Actually, to follow-up on myself: "It's cheap(, it being in this instance) at half the price (I would normally charge)" works best. Why has that only just occured to me? 220.127.116.11 13:33, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- Attempting to interpret "head over heels" to somehow mean "head down, heels up" isn't etymologically accurate; it's simply a reversal of the original expression, which was "heels over head." There's a similar expression in German ("Hals über Kopf") and Scandinavian (Norwegian "hals over hode", Swedish "hals över huvud") literally "neck over head," which means "in great hurry or disarray, without thinking" and is also sometimes (particularly in Norwegian) reversed for no particular reason: perhaps it's just the "mouth feel" that makes it tempting. 18.104.22.168 10:40, 12 September 2015 (UTC)
'I couldn't care less' is the standard formulation in the UK, for one. I always assumed that the US version was originally a variant on this which was later contracted, eg 'I could care less, but not much'.22.214.171.124 07:10, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
Given that xkcd is so pro-science, I don't think the analysis here should endorse the peeve that there's anything wrong with "I could care less" (or use of "literally" as an intensifier), since most actual linguists, experts on how language works, think it's fine. See for example the list of posts dealing with the question here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=21170#more-21170 And of course, the comic itself points out how petty an besides the point this kind of "correction" is. 126.96.36.199 07:43, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- As a linguist, regarding the claim that most actual linguists think it's fine, I'd have to respectfully say HELL NO! There is a difference between acknowledging the pragmatic implementation of the phrase, that is, its use in common parlance and the general acceptance and understanding of it, and the question wether or not it is "fine". The comic exemplifies a rather extreme version of the idea "Whatever people use is proper language" - in other words, as long as everybody involved in a conversation gets what is meant, there is no point in arguing semantics, grammer, etc. This is, however, neither the only, nor the dominant approach to language and linguistics. For exapmle, it doesn't answer the question how such an ostensibly paradox use of this phrase came to happen, where (geographically, socially, etc.) the phrase might have originated, and other puzzless regarding the origin of the phrase; this attitude also dismisses any inquiry into how humans process (or ignore) such discrepancies between literal meaning and actual use, and in general, how humans organise, structure, and conecptualise language. Additionally, this comic adds a radical deconstructional (and maybe existential) twist to this perspective by basically saying, "We're all alone, and can never really know or understand anybody else".
- Such an attitude of total relativism ("Every experience ist entirely subjective and unique") makes my skin crawl. It is by far more presumptious than being a little pedantic about grammar and the use of expressions.
188.8.131.52 11:35, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- Agreed. Words have meanings and reducing the amount of trust you can place in those meanings decreases the value of the language. "You could never understand me, so I might as well not even try to make myself understood" is a cop-out. 184.108.40.206 15:22, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- I stand by my comment that most linguists would argue that the phrase does not warrant censure, on the grounds that it is (1) in very common use, probably about 5 times as common as "couldn't care less" in American speech, including educated speech, and about half as common in writing, (2) long established, with the OED's first reference back in 1966, only twenty years after it first notes "I couldn't care less" (and with Google Book Search, we can push this back to the 1940s: it occurs repeatedly in the official transcript of a House Congressional Hearing in 1947, for example), (3) idiomatic, so that logical analysis of its strict literal content is not helpful, and (4) analogous to other constructions (in English and other languages) that don't raise any eyebrows or hackles. That does not mean that they don't consider it interesting and worthy of explanation, of course. Indeed, almost all the work of actually trying to explain how "could care less" arose has been done by people who are at pain to point out that they find the phrase unobjectionable (while those who disapprove of it don't seem to get much further than calling it "an ignorant substitution" or a result of "sloppy speech and sloppy writing"). It's of course hard to prove that this is the majority view in academic circles, but I refer to Lawler, Liberman, Pullum, Okrent , Pinker, the various dictionaries that list it without deprecation (e.g. RH Webster's: "usage: could care less, the apparent opposite of couldn't care less, is actually used interchangeably with it to express indifference. Both versions occur mainly in informal speech."), and linguistic popularizers such as Grammarist . This clearly reflects the descriptivist paradigm that seeks to understand language as it actually occurs, and looks skeptically on attempts to impose "rules" that are often demonstrably wrong. In other words, treating linguistics as an empirical science. The version of this position that Megan argues in the comic is obviously heightened for comic effect (she's also using a sort of mock-Gricean analysis to impute a possible helpful intent to Ponytail). You can find most of these points endorsed in a very reasonable blog post by dictionary.com. 220.127.116.11 09:25, 12 September 2015 (UTC)
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'
[Comet] 23:35, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
As it's currently written, the explanation seems to suggest that "I could care less" is the American form and "I couldn't care less" British. In fact, both forms are in use in the US, and it wouldn't surprise me if "I could care less" occurs occasionally in British English as well. There are also other English-speaking countries in the world. 18.104.22.168 07:47, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- As a Brit, I can't think of any time I've heard a fellow Briton say "I could care less", it's always seemed very much an American phenomenon. 22.214.171.124 12:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- Another American chiming in here to say that I never, ever, ever say "I could care less" when I mean "I couldn't care less". Characterizing it as "*the* American form" is incorrect. 126.96.36.199 15:20, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
As for the title text, I'd disagree with "The sentence is also ambiguous, as it may mean that literally or figuratively, the speaker could or couldn't care less." I think that Randall is pretty clear here: he should ('could' as in polite request) care less about irrational idioms instead of wasting time drawing comics about it. But he just can't resist. And without him doing so, we wouldn't be here. So in fact, it is nonsense for Randall to care less, and this contradiction is the point of the title text joke. But then again, I'm not native English speaker, and even less of a thought reader to understand what was on his mind. -- kavol, 188.8.131.52 08:30, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- I had an alternate take on the title text. Since I could care less literally means I care some but could stand not to care as much, I took it to mean that for all the comic says about the true spirit and nature of communication and the evils of forcing linguistic absolutism onto other people, at the end of the day Randall still does care about people using correct phraseology. Yes, language is so much more than words and sounds but without clear grammatical usage rules communication could descend into chaos. This is actually one of the pivotal points in Jet Li's movie Hero which is a great commentary on this comic's profundity. The deep resonating pools of meaning that communication stores is only useful for peace and coexistence if we can all understand each other and come together as one. --R0hrshach (talk) 15:48, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- I'm solidly with the IP. Randall is saying that, evidently, this is something which is important to him, and something he's put a lot of thought into. FourViolas (talk) 17:33, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
I think "I could care less" is completely unheard of in Britain - I had to come here to find out what this was all about! In the UK the correction wouldn't be seen as pedantic, but rather that you had said something really rather odd, possibly for effect. I'm guessing in the US this doesn't stand out, and the phrase is "familiar" so the brain will run with it, but it just sounds really weird and jarring to me. That's not being pedantic, we toss double negatives around all over the place. Randall's point is that it how you interpret the words, rather than exact rules. So if ponytail is British then she is genuinely just trying to check that it wasn't a slip of the tongue and not meant for effect. To experience how odd it sounds its like a similar phrase "I don't give a s**t", but someone saying "I do give a s**t" (unless you guy's say that as well?!). 184.108.40.206 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
- You're right, the British National Corpus has essentially no hits for "could care less" . However, Ponytail's "correction" doesn't sound like she's unfamiliar with the expression, but more like the common pedantic objection to it, so I doubt that she's intended to be British, or that it's anything other than "showing off how well she knows some mental checklist." The Lawler link above () discusses the example "They could give a damn about Whitewater" (as in they don't actually give a damn about it). I think you could get away with "I give a shit?" or "[Like] I give a shit!" (with the "like" elided) as implicitly negative, but no, you can't put in an affirmative "do." 220.127.116.11 10:05, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
I'm fighting a long lost battle, I know, but can I mention my fight against the (long-standing) misuse of Decimation when the speaker/writer probably means Devastation? These days it's often assumed to be its own mathematical complement (around ~10% survival, rather than the intended ~10% depletion). 18.104.22.168 13:47, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
I am right with you on this one. Although I don't think the users are mistaking the Dev- for the Dec-, they have just forgotten or never learned that "decimate" had anything to with percentages. Heck, many English speakers don't grasp that percent has anything to do with percentages. NoniMausa (talk) 15:20, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
Either one works, depending on how the sentence is finished:
- I could care less...about this than other things.
- I couldn't care less...about this than I already do.
--EE 22.214.171.124 13:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- Indeed, but "I could..." also begs the question "...but will I?" and so does not actually affirms that "I will care less (than with other things)", whilst "I couldn't..." is more imperative as in "...and therefore I wouldn't". (Unless you want to read the latter as "I couldn't care less because I actually care quite a lot already and I know that this will never change", I suppose! Oh dear, we uregently need to start using one of those totally-umambiguous ConLangs based upon predicate logic!) 126.96.36.199 15:48, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
On a different note: The way the panels are set up is pretty interesting. Anyone a idea, why he set it up like that? Does he want to tell us something? --188.8.131.52 17:20, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
- The panels seem to form a logical story progression: introduction / development / conclusion, each on 3 lines. The panel on solitude and darkness is inverted -- it's literally dark -- which is a common comics idiom to emphasize a specific panel and break monotony . Ralfoide (talk) 20:41, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
This is starting to feel like the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange :-)
It's quite amusing as most of the discussion here is about the pedantic usage solely focused on how the listener perceives the expression irregardless (;-p) of what the speaker tried to express, which is is exactly what the comic is ranting about.
If we want to be all pedantic, I'd offer the alternative that "I could care less" is a literally (;-p) perfectly sound form in itself. It's all about expressing the emotional value that someone attaches to a concept or thing -- think of it as an emotional energy or charge. Since everything is inter-dependent, there is no such thing as an absolute zero, it's the relation to other things that matters. The expression "I don't care" would imply the speaker devotes a neutral emotional energy value to the subject. Since it's a relative value, there are no boundaries in either direction and consequently "I could care less" and "I couldn't care less" are perfectly valid. It's all relative, as used to say Frank. Ralfoide (talk) 20:28, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
'I know what you're thinking about,' said Tweedledum; 'but it isn't so, nohow.'
'Contrariwise,' continued Tweedledee, 'if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.'
[Comet] 23:26, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
"I could care less, but I would have to try" is the phrase as I have always known it (shortened to "I could care less...). I always took this to mean that someone was indifferent to a thing. It is a bit of an oxymoron since to try would mean you care more when your goal is to care less. My assumption has always been that the way someone feels about something generally exists on a scale from love to hate with the dead center being indifference. To care more from an indifferent standpoint is too move towards one of the poles (love or hate) and thus the oxymoron.--The elusive pickle (talk) 22:27, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
Is it proper to use citations or should we just link to the source? Forrest (talk)10:44, 12 September 2015 (UTC)
- Negation by association in French
The assertion that could care less, or give a damn, is "negative in its own right" in the same way as pas in French sounds dubious to me to say the least, if not downright bovine excrement. In French, the original word for negation is ne, it came to be associated with pas, so that there was a perceived redundancy. Dropping ne when pas is used clearly conserves the negative meaning (it is only usual in oral French though, and frowned upon in written French). The same applies with adverbs that have a negative meaning, like jamais (never). But this is a very generic process, and thus completely different from very specific cases like could care less. Zoyd (talk) 17:28, 12 September 2015 (UTC)
- Absolutely off-topic: there's a fairly good overview of the evolution leading to ne... pas in French over there in The Other Wiki. The link (or lack thereof) with could care less would definitely qualify as capilotracté. Ralfoide (talk) 00:02, 17 September 2015 (UTC)
I've heard people say they couldn't give a damn. Never heard someone say they could. 184.108.40.206 13:17, 14 September 2015 (UTC)
It's a shame we don't know Ponytail's name. If we did, this would pass the Bechdel test. Out of interest, are there any xkcds which pass the Bechdel test? 220.127.116.11 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I could care more. 18.104.22.168 00:35, 15 September 2015 (UTC)
This was done on Pearls Before Swine a couple of weeks ago. --22.214.171.124 13:53, 17 September 2015 (UTC)
Perhaps she's saying she could care a lot about the correction if it's intended to help her, but she could care less than that if the correction stems from the desire to complete a mental checklist.
In other words, there are two interpretations of the significance of Ponytail's correction. If the first interpretation is correct, she will care a lot. If the second interpretation is correct, she will care less. But she's not sure which is the case right now, so she could either care a lot or care less.126.96.36.199 13:53, 18 March 2017 (UTC)