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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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