A Curmudgeon Rerun: "Could You, or Could You Not, Care Less?"
("Could You, or Could You Not, Care Less?" originally appeared in The Weekly Curmudgeon on June 19th, 2017)
There is perhaps no more abused expression in the English language than the perfectly logical, clearly communicative, "I couldn't care less." In just four words, the speaker deals a solid blow, elegantly and efficiently disempowering a topic by describing the ultimate level of disinterest. What could be clearer than saying that it would be impossible to care any less than you do?
This dazzlingly efficient sentence is worthy of accurate repetition. But, alas, when people don't pay attention to the meanings of the words that emerge from their mouths and/or keyboards, well, that's when bad things happen to good expressions. People start to communicate nonsensical, non-English gobbledegook. And so this mentally lazy, Minecraft-muddled, accuracy-resistant generation has managed to land on an idiotically garbled version of the phrase which, when parsed, clearly states the very opposite of what's intended, "I could care less." To those who love language, this is nothing short of madness.
Let me explain. Picture a thermometer. For the purposes of this illustration, this thermometer represents care, or, more specifically, the amount of care. If you cared very much about something, the line in the thermometer would be at or near the top. If you cared somewhat, the line would be somewhere in the middle. But if you didn't care at all—not even a little bit—the line in the thermometer would be at the very bottom. There would be no space below it, and no further down it could go. Because when the line hits the bottom of the thermometer, at that point, you care not a jot, not a whit, not a fig, and you give nary a fuck. On a scale of zero to a hundred, you care zero. And so, you couldn't care any less, because there's nothing less than zero. Hence the expression, correctly stated, "I couldn't care less."
If you have absolutely no money, it would be impossible to have any less, because you have the least amount, which is zero. If the lights are all out, there couldn't be any less light. That would be scientifically impossible. No light is the minimum amount of light. So there couldn't be less. If something is free, it couldn't be less expensive. So it follows that if you have no interest whatsoever in something—if you don't care at all—then you couldn't care less. You already care the smallest amount, the very minimum, which is not at all. If all of the foregoing felt a bit repetitious, it's because people have gotten so accustomed to the twisted version of the phrase that I feel the need to hammer home the logical case for quashing it.
Now, how did this deterioration happen in the first place? Here's the Curmudgeon's theory. Originally, the expression worked like so:
"I saw your ex-boyfriend Harold the other day."
"So what? I couldn't care less about Harold."
Then some altered it to a more obtuse but still logical version:
"I saw your ex-boyfriend Harold the other day." "As if I could care less about Harold." (In other words, the respondent couldn't care any less.)
And then, people stopped thinking:
"I saw your ex-boyfriend Harold the other day." "I could care less about Harold."
Now, here's the problem. If you say you could care less . . . think this through with me now . . . then that means that you do care, somewhat. You're saying there's still lower you could go. You could care less than you do. There is at least a bit of mercury in the thermometer. You may not care much, but you could care less. Now, maybe that's what you're intending to say, but if so, it's not much of a statement. It's a bit of a ho-hum, really, translating into something along the lines of:
"I saw your ex-boyfriend Harold the other day." "I care about Harold somewhat."
How . . . less than interesting. I'm afraid the correct version of this expression may be lost to us forever, as incessant use of its ass-backwards doppelgänger seems to have taken its place. One might say that as far as this expression goes, the genie is out of the bottle. The cow is out of the barn. The ship has sailed. And those are expressions I hope won't suffer the same fate. Because words, and their proper usage, are what enable us to communicate. And that's something about which I could care less.