I know little and could care less about this error

I'm not surprised to learn that many subscribers to the e-calendar have their favorite, or rather least-favorite, usage errors. I frequently get requests to feature one error or another because a reader feels the need to raise more awareness of it. Or, as happened this morning, I get a response thanking me for featuring an error (in this case it was "shrunk" where "shrank" would be the correct form) that the reader has seen or heard just one time too many.

But yesterday's entry ("could care less/could not care less") is one that--though I agree with Paul that the phrase should logically be "couldn't care less"--I have learned to live with. I haven't given up on it as a lost cause; I've just created my own little explanation for how it came to be, and have chosen to ignore all available logic and scholarship concerning its use. I've retreated into my own musings over where it came from. What follows is not even folk etymology; it's just my own secret theory, my own private Idaho.

My completely unfounded explanation for the expression "could care less" comes from an experience of listening to an interview conducted by Lewis Lapham on his radio show about two years ago (no recollection which broadcast it was, unfortunately). At some point in the interview, Lapham presented his guest with an opportunity to explain something to us listeners: "Most Americans," Lewis said, "know little and could care less about [something related to guest's area of expertise]." No, I cannot remember the topic, but suddenly I had a revelation about "could care less." What if, I thought, that expression entered English as a truncation of the (less common, but perfectly logical and prevelent) phrase "know little and could care less"? Everything fell into place for me. Suddenly the phrase that made no sense at all turned on its head to one that worked perfectly well.

After all, "could care less," when contrasted with "couldn't care less" doesn't seem to have much kin in American English. We don't sarcastically say "I give a damn" when we mean "I don't give a damn," for example. We say "like I care" rather than "like I don't care." I'm hard pressed to think of widespread use of phrases that sarcastically insert negations to their meaning.

And so I choose, in my mind, to allow for that. I tell myself that the phrase is short for "know little and could care less." I can even imagine that the phrase "couldn't care less" came along later than "could care less"; that is, I could imagine a speaker using the phrase "could care less" without the preceding "know little and," and a listener chiming in to correct it to "couldn't care less," thus creating a pat expression where there was not one before. I do this fully aware that I have absolutely nothing to back me up; a query to the noted language writer Nathan Bierma about it led nowhere, and Google shows me nothing. This is a conclusion I've allowed to myself free of the rigors of any serious research or scholarship whatsoever. Yes, I feel bad about that, but no, not so bad that I'd change any of it. I cannot abandon this inner bliss in favor of profound regret.

One final note: I never use either "couldn't care less" or "could care less" in my own speech and writing, and I think the bigger point to make is that there is nothing fresh or exciting about either one. Use "know little and could care less" if you must. Even the great Lewis Lapham does it, apparently, but I would stay away from the straight "couldn't care less," logical though it may be.

And as for raising our hackles, some of us need to leave room for "shrunk" vs. "shrank."

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