Talk:1576: I Could Care Less

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Revision as of 15:20, 11 September 2015 by (talk) (Protesting, probably vainly...)
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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" ‎ (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 ~~~~)
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.
  • "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: --EE 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 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 12:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)
(In response to Cwallenpoole, not, 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... 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? 13:33, 11 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'. 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: And of course, the comic itself points out how petty an besides the point this kind of "correction" is. 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. 11:35, 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. 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. 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. 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, 08:30, 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?!). (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

You're right, the British National Corpus has essentially no hits for "could care less" [1]. 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 ([2]) 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." 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). 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 13:52, 11 September 2015 (UTC)