I’m a big David Mitchell fan, he’s a great actor, speaker, has an amazing a sense of humor and his writing is bloomin’ brilliant. I also loved his video podcast series David Mitchell’s Soapbox, which started all the way back in the forgotten mists of 2009. Now David has dozens of brilliant episodes of Soapbox, but arguably his most famous episode is one you’ve probably seen trotted out across the internet in one form or another- Dear America…, in which he discusses in classic Mitchell style, among other things, the nonsensical phrase “I could care less”.
Fine, right? Great! Funny. A nice side-line two-minute video to make you laugh. Not as good as some of his other episodes, but a classic nonetheless. Maybe, however, could we stop talking about this possibly incorrect use of a phrase as if it’s some kind of deadly virus that needs to be knocked out before we all succumb to the horrors of using idioms that are factually inaccurate? “What do you mean ‘why am I feeling blue’?! That’s a colour not a feeling, get him! Burn the witch!”
This is nothing against David Mitchell, who merely pointed out this interesting development of a phrase for comic effect. No, the problem I have is with the hordes of internet and grammar aficionados/know-it-alls that use this video as some irrefutable logic bomb, and insist that this injustice in speech needs to be pointed out at every available opportunity as an example of either the English language going to the dogs (see: Eats, shoots and Leaves), or America being a bunch of dummies who say stuff they don’t understand (see: edgy teenagers). I think this also falls into the larger category of people co-opting someone’s opinion as fact, and that will point to something like Louis CK’s or Chris Rock’s stand-up-routines as a reason or justification that we should all be allowed to use gay slurs or the n-word because “It’s just language! I don’t mean it to be offensive! It’s your fault if you’re offended!”.
So where does “I could care less” actually come from anyway? Well, we don’t know for sure. It’s impossible, really, to pin down the first usage of the phrase and there are various theories. Dictionary.com rightfully points out that the phrase is an idiom, and guess what? Idioms don’t have to make logical sense:
“In English, along with other languages, idioms are not required to follow logic, and to point out the lack of logic in one idiom and not all idioms is…illogical.”
Similarly, the first recorded usage of “I couldn’t care less” only precedes “I could care less” by around 10 years. Although the Dictionary.com article refutes it, the best theory I’ve heard of the phrases etymology is that it originated from Yiddish adoption of the term. Yiddish speakers dropped the negative couldn’t as part of pattern of self-deprecating/sarcastic phrasing that is common in Yiddish heritage and New York Jewish speech. Just as how Yiddish communities popularized the phrase “I should be so lucky!” (which actually tends to mean “I have no hope of being so lucky!”), “I could care less!” sort of follows that sort of delivery and speech pattern when presented that way.
Another phrase that is more generally American is “Tell me about it!” which really means “Don’t tell me about it, because I know all about it already” but follows this sarcastic style.
Again, There’s no actual documented evidence of this, but I always liked that explanation as it felt like the most believable and understandable to me, (mainly because when you say it in the voice of a plucky sarcastic rabbi from New York, it doesn’t sound nearly as out-of-place).
So maybe let’s just accept I could care less for what it is: an idiom that doesn’t really have to make sense in any way, and just another example of how cool and evolutionary the use of English is without having to point it out as wrong at every available opportunity. Maybe, in fact, we should look at what is probably the best episode of Soapbox, in which David’s friend and co-writer Robert Webb comes on to quite rightfully point out the hypocrisy and generally nit-picky nature in many of Mitchell’s arguments. At the end of the day, David’s arguments are funny. They’re well presented, well-research and most of the time technically correct, but that doesn’t make it undeniably right, and it certainly doesn’t make it a crutch for you to then go and beat every person with who wants to use a phrase of speech differently than you online or in real life. In the end, can’t we all just get along?