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Could or Couldn’t Care Less? The Naughty Grammarian Explains

Updated on February 25, 2017
CatherineGiordano profile image

Catherine Giordano, aka "The Naughty Grammarian," has had her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry published in books and periodicals.

Frankly, My Dear...

Rhett Butler kisses Scarlet O'Hara in this movie poster for "Gone With the Wind."
Rhett Butler kisses Scarlet O'Hara in this movie poster for "Gone With the Wind." | Source

Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Damn

Miss Grammers must confess that she sometimes approves of strong language. It breaks through the clutter, and lets everyone know that you mean business.

In the movie classic, Gone with the Wind, when Rhett Butler wanted to let Scarlett O’Hara know in no uncertain terms that he was done with her and her scheming, he said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

If Rhett Butler had wanted to be a bit more decorous in his language, he could have said, “I couldn’t care less.”

Or should he have said “I could care less”?

Miss Grammers would like to clarify the issue as to which option is better.

I Couldn't Care Less

This alligator couldn't care less.
This alligator couldn't care less. | Source

I Couldn’t Care Less

The phrase “I couldn’t care less” originated in Great Britain around the turn of the 20th century.

“I couldn’t care less” is precise, it is to the point, and there is no mistaking the meaning. When one wishes to express utter disdain and a total lack of interest, but one also wishes to avoid even mild profanity, the proper phrase is “I couldn’t care less.” This phrase also has the advantage of being precise, to the point, and very clear in its meaning.

When Melanie heard that Doug was engaged to Linda, it was like a knife-stab to her heart, but she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone know how she felt. “Oh really,” she said, “I couldn’t care less.”

Uninterested or Disinterested?

Is this alligator uninterested or disinterested?
Is this alligator uninterested or disinterested? | Source

The Difference Between Uninterested and Disinterested

Please permit Miss Grammers to digress for a moment. In the above excerpt from Miss Grammers’ novel Love’s True Desires, did Melanie claim she was uninterested or did she claim to be disinterested in the news about Doug and Linda?

Uninterested is an adjective that means bored, indifferent, or unconcerned. Disinterested means unbiased, impartial, objective, or not having a personal interest in the matter being discussed.

Clearly Melanie is feigning a lack of interest. She wants people to think she is uninterested.

When Melanie heard that Doug and Linda had a fight, Melanie said “I couldn’t care less. I am uninterested in their relationship.”

When Melanie heard that Doug and Linda had a fight, Melanie said, “I will try to counsel them. As a disinterested person, I might be able to help.”

In the first example, Melanie was lying.

In the second example, Melanie was lying through her teeth and scheming to make matters worse for Doug and Linda.

Does a Toothy Smile Hide a Lie?

Is this alligator with his toothy grin hiding a lie?
Is this alligator with his toothy grin hiding a lie? | Source

The Meaning of "Lying Through Your Teeth"

Please allow Miss Grammers another digression. Miss Grammers is going off on tangents today. Some days are just like that.

Lying through your teeth means to tell a blatant, and malicious, falsehood.

There is no clear source for this idiom. It most likely means that one smiles when telling this lie so as not to reveal one’s malicious intent. The teeth are shown when one smiles, but the words emerging from behind that smile are a lie.

We know that Melanie does indeed have an interest in the outcome of the fight between Doug and Linda, so she is blatantly lying when she offers to help and is most certainly trying to do some mischief. She undoubtedly smiled when she offered to help.

If someone had looked closely, they might have seen that she looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

Do Warm Words Hide a Cold Heart?

Is this alligator a phony?
Is this alligator a phony? | Source

The Meaning of "Butter Wouldn’t Melt in His Mouth"

Miss Manners must apologize again. This will be her last digression—Miss Grammers promises.

“Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” means to affect an air of innocence, sincerity, and warm concern, while being inwardly cool. It indicates duplicity—the speaker is being warm in manner to indicate caring, but the speaker is actually being cold and calculating. Melanie is outwardly showing enough warmth to melt butter, but is actually so cold in her feelings that butter couldn’t melt.

Sometimes this phrase is misused to suggest that the speaker is actually being sweet and nice, but that is the exact opposite of the meaning. The key to the meaning is “wouldn’t”-–the speaker is too cold (too unemotional) to melt butter (metaphorically speaking).

Could Care Less?

 This alligator looks like he cares a lot...and what he cares about is lunch.
This alligator looks like he cares a lot...and what he cares about is lunch. | Source

The Difference Between "Could" or "Couldn't" Care Less

Finally, Miss Grammers has circled back to the initial question of “I couldn’t care less” vs. “I could care less.”

Some people would say that Melanie could have said “I could care less” and conveyed the same meaning. Miss Grammers is not one of those people. Although the phrase is commonly used to express a lack of interest, it lacks clarity of meaning.

Compare these two statements.

When Melanie heard that Doug was engaged to Linda, it was like a knife-stab to her heart, but she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone know how she felt. “Oh really,” she said, “I couldn’t care less.”

When Melanie heard that Doug was engaged to Linda, it was like a knife-stab to her heart, but she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone know how she felt. “Oh really,” she said, “I could care less.”

In the second statement, is Melanie saying that she cares not at all? Or is Melanie saying that she cares just a little, or even a whole lot?

If Melanie couldn’t care less, it means she cares so little that it would be impossible for her to care any less than she does. She is at the nadir (the lowest point) of caring. On a scale from zero to ten, she is at zero. If she could care less, however, the literal meaning is that she could go lower on the scale. On a scale of zero to ten, she might be at one or two.

The Origin of “Could Care Less”

The expression “could care less” may have developed from Yiddish humor which frequently uses an expression directly opposite to the speaker's true meaning in a sarcastic manner. It is similar to the expression, “You should be so lucky.”

Miss Grammers had to use italics to show the emphasis on the verb “should” when the word is spoken. Since it is hard to convey vocal intonation in written language, Miss Grammers advises you to avoid sarcasm in written language unless the context makes it very clear that the words are meant as sarcasm.

In spoken language Miss Grammers believes that one would have to grossly exaggerate the verb “could” in the hopes of conveying the sarcasm. Consequently Miss Grammers advises against the use of “I could care less.”

However, should you find yourself addressing a Yiddish audience, Miss Grammers gives you permission to use “I could care less,” providing you can get the inflection exactly right.

Miss Grammers

Miss Grammers has led her loyal readers on a merry chase in and out and around idioms.
Miss Grammers has led her loyal readers on a merry chase in and out and around idioms. | Source

Who is Miss Grammers?

Miss Grammers has led you, dear loyal reader, on a merry chase today flitting from idiom to idiom like a bee flitting from flower to flower.

Miss Grammers is sometimes a bit of a naughty librarian going off on wild sprees that belie her prim and proper exterior. Everything she does is to help her dear loyal readers master the intricacies of English grammar and usage.

If you have found this lesson helpful and also (Miss Grammers hopes) enjoyable, please search out and read all of her other lessons.

Miss Grammers does indeed give a damn about correct English grammar and usage, and she hopes you do too.

The "Frankly, My Dear, I Don't Give a Damn" clip from "Gone with the Wind"

Just for fun.


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© 2014 Catherine Giordano

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    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      Sorry Catherine, that one slipped by. lol

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Kevin, The Naughty Grammarian never makes mistakes. I, on the other hand, just can't seem to type straight or remember to proof before I click submit.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Jackie, Excellent response to your teacher. She was wrong, but like many, she will insist that she is right. Actually so many people are saying "could care less" that it is just about acceptable. But I will never give up the fight because I hate making words mean the opposite of what they mean. Thanks for your comment.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I went around bouts with more than one teacher that said it was,"I could care less." I would say well maybe you could but I couldn't! Fun article.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      I believe that the Naughty Grammarian just made a naughty spelling error - 'excepts' instead of 'excerpts'. :-)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      The premise is that my character, The Naughty Grammarian, is writing a sexy romance novel. There is a complete series of these grammar hubs each illustrated with excepts from her novel. The "naughtiness" makes the lesson more interesting, and I hope, more memorable. I am planning to do another in this series, maybe tomorrow.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      As I perused this I noticed that Miss Grammers used love affairs as an example for each word. Curious. Is she a romantic? This was very interesting. I did learn a few things. Since I am always trying to improve my grammar, Hubs such as this are intriguing to me. I voted this up, shared and pinned it.

      Kevin

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you, teaches12345. I'm glad you are interested. "Disinterested" is a great word to use. Let's get more people using the word correctly.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      I am going to practice using disinterested. Thanks for the lesson today.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      brakel2: Thank you so much for your kind words. I had a lot of fun researching these phrases and it is nice to know that you couldn't care more.

    • brakel2 profile image

      Audrey Selig 3 years ago from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

      Catherine - I hate these terms and appreciate your humor as you present them. I wish folks would use proper language, and it is interesting that some phrases come from somewhere like old movies. Everything begins somewhere - style, words, phrases and the like. I must read more of your works. Thanks for sharing. Blessings, Audrey

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Jodah. It is my pet peeve too. And sometimes funny, when people are saying exactly the opposite of what they mean without knowing it.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      One of my peeves is how sayings are changed over time by new generations. It is and should always be "I couldn't care less". "Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth" has always meant to me that a person is being two-faced and pretending to be sweet and nice where in fact she was the complete opposite. Good article from the Naughty Grammarian as usual.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Lady: Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you found the topic fun. I had fun writing it. And some of the idioms did not mean what I thought they meant either. I did research for this one.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      This is a wonderful hub and some of these were not what I thought they meant. They were fun and just stopped by to let you know. Stella

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      FlourishAnyway: Thanks for the comment and the read. This is one of the lighter lessons--no tricky conjugations and the idioms were fun.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      These are entertaining. I scored 100%, never had much of a problem with them but found your examples and explanations amusing.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you so very much Ven. It makes me feel very good that you liked this enough to vote up and share with friends and circles. I couldn't be more pleased.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Wow. Very awesome post. I am not lying through my tooth. I am very sincere in applauding you. Its so great a lesson taught with so much humor in your style. I love it.

      Voted up, awesome and shared to facebook and g+

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I agree. Lauren. Please continue to say could NOT care less."

    • Lauren Graham profile image

      Lauren Graham 3 years ago from Crazy-- it's a state of mind

      the section about 'could care less' being from yiddish humor is very interesting and good to know, but i still say 'couldn't care less'. ; )

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you MsDora for reading and voting up and for letting me know that you enjoyed this essay.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Great presentation, Miss Grammers. I like your creativity; you correct us with such grace. Thanks for the video clip. I have expressed Rhet Butler's line many, many times (inaudibly). Voted Up!

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      I'm going to try, Catherine! Keep doing your thing.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      goatfury: Thanks for your comment. Maybe we can stamp out the use of "I could care less."

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      So often when I research a topic, I find conflicting information. I try to resolve it by which website appears to be the more authoritative or how many there are on each side. Sometimes I just have to go on what sounds right to me. Chasmac, you provide an interesting alternative explanation for the origin of the idiom. But, at least we both agree that the expression is not a compliment.

    • goatfury profile image

      Andrew Smith 3 years ago from Richmond, VA

      This one really grinds my gears. I could care a whole lot less about this issue.

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 3 years ago from UK

      There may be a difference of usage between American and British English regarding "butter wouldn't melt in her mouth". The meaning is the same, but it's like you've arrived at the same meaning from the opposite direction.

      In British English, the phrase is "She LOOKS as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth". The correct usage is to describe someone who is guilty of some malicious deed or scandalous behaviour but presents the appearance of being so cool, pure and utterly innocent that butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. This is despite everyone knowing the truth about her - and despite her knowing that everyone knows.

      "Look at her - got caught stealing the church charity money but walking around looking like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth". As you said, it's not referring to any sweetness or warmth that she may be displaying, but neither is it referring to her cold and calculating nature; it's referring specifically to her facade of purity and innocence.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you for your comment, Lionrhod. I think I too thought the butter idiom meant that someone was nice when I first used it in this hub, then I decided I'd research it and I found out it meant just the opposite.

    • Lionrhod profile image

      Lionrhod 3 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Great article! Had me chuckling too. And thank you, I'd never really stopped to think about, "Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth," before. Thanks for explaining that one. I too was under the mistaken impression it meant someone was sweet.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      The Naughty Grammarian thanks you, Iris, for your support on the "could care less" vs. the "couldn't care less" debate. She is also pleased that you found the section on idioms useful.

    • Iris Draak profile image

      Cristen Iris 3 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Yay, the Naughty Grammarian returns with one of my pet peeves. I stand with you that "could care less" is imprecise. I too like a bit of strong and surly language every now and then for emphasis. That was fun as always, and I learned a new phrase. I had never heard the butter not melting one.