This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.
I couldn’t care less is a fairly common expression in British English, and no doubt in other varieties of the language, to indicate that the speaker’s interest in what is being said or done is less than enthusiastic: the speaker’s concern is at its lowest possible level. A variant seems to have sprung up, mainly, it seems, in the United States, in which the, apparently young, speaker seems to be saying the opposite of what is intended. I could care less, on the face of it, looks as if the speaker is saying that their engagement with a particular topic of conversation could actually be lower, so perhaps it is really quite high.
Those who like to find fault with pretty much everything anybody else says and writes are quick to make this point. I do not recall anyone actually saying I could care less, and its use may not be widespread in the UK, so it might be wise to allow someone with a far more authoritative voice to explain what is going on. Steven Pinker writes about it in Chapter 12 ‘The Language Mavens’ in his book ‘The Language Instinct’. (The extracts available here are all worth reading.) Here’s what he says about I could care less:
A tin ear for stress and melody, and an obliviousness to the principles of discourse and rhetoric, are important tools of the trade for the language maven. Consider an alleged atrocity committed by today’s youth: the expression ‘I could care less’. The teenagers are trying to express disdain, the adults note, in which case they should be saying ‘I couldn’t care less’. If they could care less than they do, that means that they really do care, the opposite of what they are trying to say. But if these dudes would stop ragging on teenagers and scope out the construction, they would see that their argument is bogus. Listen to how the two versions are pronounced . . . The melodies and stresses are completely different, and for a good reason. The second version is not illogical, it’s sarcastic. The point of sarcasm is that by making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, ‘Oh yeah, as if there were something in the world that I care less about.’
So into the Negative Canon it goes.