1576: "I Could Care Less"

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Sep 19, 2015 12:32 am UTC

Ermes Marana wrote:These don't mean the same thing. The rationalizations are more annoying than the phrase itself. I have almost never heard it said sarcastically or in the form of a question. Such attempted justifications instead serve as admissions of stupidity.
They're not rationalizations but attempts to explain the origin. (I had already given the "by analogy to other expressions" explanation you just gave, fwiw.)

The only justification needed is the true, unavoidable fact that, due to the same common usage that gives meaning to literally every word ever in the history of language, they now really do mean the same thing.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Ermes Marana » Sat Sep 19, 2015 12:59 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Ermes Marana wrote:These don't mean the same thing. The rationalizations are more annoying than the phrase itself. I have almost never heard it said sarcastically or in the form of a question. Such attempted justifications instead serve as admissions of stupidity.
They're not rationalizations but attempts to explain the origin. (I had already given the "by analogy to other expressions" explanation you just gave, fwiw.)

The only justification needed is the true, unavoidable fact that, due to the same common usage that gives meaning to literally every word ever in the history of language, they now really do mean the same thing.



They don't mean the same thing by any standard now though. Most likely none of the explanations people like to give (sarcasm, form of a question, don't even care enough to get it right) are accurate reflections of the origin of the phrase, but it is noteworthy that every one of these explanations suggests lack of care, or even contempt, for the conversation itself and everyone in it.

I know that "I could care less" is stupid, so if I were to use it I would be using it as an expression of sneering disdain for the person and conversation. I'm probably not the only one that would use it like that. I don't think most people use it to quite that extent, but there is at least a flavor of lack of care for the conversation and its participants.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Copper Bezel » Sat Sep 19, 2015 1:02 am UTC

The sarcasm interpretation definitely doesn't make it any more or less likely to be hostile to the listener. That honestly just doesn't follow; I don't understand the reasoning of that claim. Regardless of your repetition. It's just not there.

I do think the attempts to rationalize it are misguided, and I don't think the standard use of the phrase is, so yes, they're certainly the more annoying.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Sep 19, 2015 1:47 am UTC

Ermes Marana wrote:They don't mean the same thing by any standard now though.
Except, yes they absolutely do, because they are used to mean the same thing by everyone who says them, and that's the only standard that actually gives meaning to language.

it is noteworthy that every one of these explanations suggests lack of care, or even contempt, for the conversation itself and everyone in it.
Language change by analogy to other similar structures is perhaps somewhat careless (but only in the sense that people use what comes to mind without caring enough to go out of their way and check whether it's as correct as possible), but isn't contemptuous by any means.

This is a very common way that all languages change, so once again I have to wonder why the fetish for whining about "could care less" instead of all other language changes.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Copper Bezel » Sat Sep 19, 2015 2:56 am UTC

It's just a well-known one with exposure, like "ironically" and "literally" and "irregardless" and a bunch of others. They're well known enough that people talk about them with other people who are also annoyed about those particular cases and reinforce their feelings on them. People who complain about any one are also more likely than average to complain about others in the set.

And "language changes" doesn't actually prevent people from having preferences, either. Which you know and have stated elsewhere.

Ermes's logic is pretty damned broken, but there's no point in feigning surprise about it.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Sep 19, 2015 3:27 am UTC

Copper Bezel wrote:It's just a well-known one with exposure, like "ironically" and "literally" and "irregardless" and a bunch of others. They're well known enough that people talk about them with other people who are also annoyed about those particular cases and reinforce their feelings on them. People who complain about any one are also more likely than average to complain about others in the set.
Yes, but why are these the examples in that set? Why "could care less" but not "could give a damn"? Why "literally" and not "truly"?
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby alto50 » Sat Sep 19, 2015 8:56 am UTC

Having only read the first page or two of these replies, I'm surprised at the fixation of the phrase "I could care less" or other particular words as the main topic of conversation. To me, this is seemingly missing the entire point of this comic. It's also kind of funny because as debate carries on abut certain words or phrasing; it is inherently just demonstrating the comic's true meaning and relevance.

Also, a quick search left me doubly surprised that no one has referenced Wittgenstein or his book "Philosophical Investigations" where he deals with much on the topic of language and meaning. Here, Randall is echoing a lot of what Wittgenstein has already said - that while words are given (often times, many) definitions, their true meaning is determined by the context of the "language-game" they are used in. And that whenever a word is used, the only meaning that matters at the time is determined by the "language-game" being played.

When the phrase "I could care less" is used in the comic, both characters already have a mutual understanding of the phrase's meaning which can be determined just based on the fact that the one character tries to correct the other's use of grammar. The dark haired character later concedes that perhaps she was being corrected because the phrase was truly confusing to the other and by being more clear, would have brought them closer to mutual understanding more quickly (which should be the ultimate goal of language); but that seems far-fetched as is the case most of the time when people do this in real life.

Yes - words are defined and shared so that everyone can use the same language, but if tomorrow all the dictionaries in the world were burned and it became universally illegal to ever make one again, I guarantee you from that point onward and indefinitely into the future, we would still be able to communicate with the words we have. The words' definitions will still constantly shift and change, with old ones being lost, new ones being invented, and current ones being re-purposed.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Mattitude » Sat Sep 19, 2015 11:44 am UTC

Man I almost always agree with the stuff Randall gripes about in his comics but this is one I really kind of dislike, mainly because the expression "I could care less" is exactly stupid enough to be made fun of. Saying "I could care less" is exactly as stupid as saying "man I'm so tired, I could walk another mile". Besides, it's not like other comics don't defend grammar just as much as this one is criticizing grammar nazis. Idk it's kind of out of nowhere if you ask me.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Sep 19, 2015 3:31 pm UTC

alto50 wrote:Also, a quick search left me doubly surprised that no one has referenced Wittgenstein or his book "Philosophical Investigations" where he deals with much on the topic of language and meaning. Here, Randall is echoing a lot of what Wittgenstein has already said - that while words are given (often times, many) definitions, their true meaning is determined by the context of the "language-game" they are used in. And that whenever a word is used, the only meaning that matters at the time is determined by the "language-game" being played.
No one explicitly referenced Wittgenstein, but that view of language has been repeated by many of us, and is pretty much the fundamental idea underpinning descriptive linguistics.

Mattitude wrote:Man I almost always agree with the stuff Randall gripes about in his comics but this is one I really kind of dislike, mainly because the expression "I could care less" is exactly stupid enough to be made fun of. Saying "I could care less" is exactly as stupid as saying "man I'm so tired, I could walk another mile".
You could walk another thousand what?

Words change from their literal origins just like phrases do. Sorry that bothers you so much, but there's still nothing more stupid about this phrase than about any of the hundreds of others that have changed meaning.

Besides, it's not like other comics don't defend grammar just as much as this one is criticizing grammar nazis. Idk it's kind of out of nowhere if you ask me.
Which comics?
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby doogly » Sat Sep 19, 2015 5:32 pm UTC

Mattitude wrote: Idk it's kind of out of nowhere if you ask me.

It is challenging you to become a better person.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Copper Bezel » Sat Sep 19, 2015 9:12 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Copper Bezel wrote:It's just a well-known one with exposure, like "ironically" and "literally" and "irregardless" and a bunch of others. They're well known enough that people talk about them with other people who are also annoyed about those particular cases and reinforce their feelings on them. People who complain about any one are also more likely than average to complain about others in the set.
Yes, but why are these the examples in that set? Why "could care less" but not "could give a damn"? Why "literally" and not "truly"?

Historical accident. Ironic in context, I suppose, but that's simply how community-reinforced pet peeves work, and not only in language.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Ermes Marana » Sat Sep 19, 2015 10:56 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
Copper Bezel wrote:It's just a well-known one with exposure, like "ironically" and "literally" and "irregardless" and a bunch of others. They're well known enough that people talk about them with other people who are also annoyed about those particular cases and reinforce their feelings on them. People who complain about any one are also more likely than average to complain about others in the set.
Yes, but why are these the examples in that set? Why "could care less" but not "could give a damn"? Why "literally" and not "truly"?



Only speaking for myself here, but there are several reasons why I hate "could care less" while not caring much about the others.


1. "Could care less" serves no purpose*.

If someone says "that is literally the worst thing I have ever heard" about something that literally is not the worst thing they have ever heard, the usage served a purpose. People with a "literally" pet peeve may not approve of the purpose, but they don't deny it exists.

In contrast, I deny that any usefulness exists for "could care less." It removes clarity, it does not intensify, it does not paint a different picture; it is a universally inferior statement.

*: Except possibly to add an air of hostility directed at the conversation and its participants. That is the only way I would use it, and the way I am likely to interpret it.


2. "Could care less" is genuinely dumber.

Compare to your "could give a damn" example. That suggests that you do not give a damn.

"I could care less" is equivalent to "I do give a damn."


3. The explanations people give make it dumber still.

It generally isn't used like a sarcastic "yeah, I sure care about that." That doesn't match the tone or context. I admit that it could be used that way, but in reality I hear it used identically to "I couldn't care less."

It generally isn't used in the form of a question. "I could care less?" Again, tone and context.

Both of the above, if I actually believed they were used that way, could be used (depending on context) in a hostile manner, or as a direct rebuff. But I admit that they are not necessarily so.

Part of my hatred of the phrase comes from the explanation "not caring enough to get the phrase right (or to make sense) only intensifies the expression of not caring." To which I respond "yes... but not caring about me, and the conversation, as opposed to the subject." I haven't seen that explanation used in this thread, but having seen it elsewhere influences my interpretation.


4. The inherently dismissive nature of "could care less" makes it more suited to hostile usage and interpretation.

An equally pointless, stupid phrase that meant "it's a nice day out" would not draw my ire as much.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Sep 20, 2015 1:40 am UTC

I love how hostile and dismissive you are in your complaints about how allegedly hostile and dismissive "could care less" is.

(As I've said, if I use it to be dismissive, it's only to dismiss petulant complainers like you who take issue with the phrase. It's definitely not dismissive in general and I think people who don't take issue with the phrase damn well know that, so it all works out as intended most of the time.)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Copper Bezel » Sun Sep 20, 2015 1:55 am UTC

And as has been noted many, many times, "could care less" has better meter than "couldn't," which is why the shift happened in the first place. That is the purpose it serves.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby doogly » Sun Sep 20, 2015 2:23 am UTC

"Metri causa" was the ballsiest option for explaining a line of Vergil on the AP test.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Ermes Marana » Sun Sep 20, 2015 4:09 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I love how hostile and dismissive you are in your complaints about how allegedly hostile and dismissive "could care less" is.

(As I've said, if I use it to be dismissive, it's only to dismiss petulant complainers like you who take issue with the phrase. It's definitely not dismissive in general and I think people who don't take issue with the phrase damn well know that, so it all works out as intended most of the time.)



I'm not intending to be hostile or dismissive. In my last post I addressed the criticism that the sarcastic explanation need not be hostile; I admitted the criticism was correct.

On point 4 that I listed, I should have added that "could" and "couldn't" care less are both, by intention, dismissive. Of course they are, it's a dismissive phrase (toward the subject you don't care about), and there's no problem with that. I see now that I suggested I was singling out "could care less" by listing it by itself.

I was hypothesizing that the inherently dismissive nature of the phrase in question could contribute to greater annoyance. As in, a controversial/disputed/nonsensical expression for "it's a nice day out" might not garner such extreme reactions from fools like myself. That was a possible answer to your earlier question of why this particular expression draws ire.

By this point no doubt you are wondering just how much I care about this phrase. I must sheepishly admit that yeah... I could care less.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Sun Sep 20, 2015 5:29 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:it seems like sarcasm requires conscious and intentional use of a phrase that literally means the strong opposite of what the sarcast means.
Refining this a bit because I was thinking about it at work today, I would now say both the above are generally necessary for a phrase to become conventionally sarcastic, as in "Oh great" to mean something is terrible.

Individual sarcasm use still requires intent, but can probably work with anything whose literal sense differs from what the speaker means.

(Though then you run into issues delineating between sarcasm and overstatement/understatement, which also involve a disconnect between literal and intended meanings...)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Sun Sep 20, 2015 7:08 am UTC

The simple fact is that "could care less" is no more illogical than "head over heels." Which, interpreted literally, means "standing normally" but actually means upside down. How many of you people claiming "could care less" is dumb say "head over heels" without ever once thinking about its lack of logic? It's a fixed phrase—it's what people say. Doesn't matter if it's logical or not. Fact is, many people who say "could care less" are a lot smarter than you. But people (even smart people) don't stop to analyze the internal logic of fixed phrases they've learned from their elders, their teachers, their poets and statesmen.

Of course, we don't have a substantial population of English speakers outside the US who say "heels over head", so the illogic of that phrase doesn't get highlighted as often. But it's the exact same phenomenon.

Unless you actually insist on "heels over head", though, I have to say that you come off as a hypocrite when you complain about "could care less." :P

And if you get too caught up in whining about how it's "wrong", you'll end up missing something even more interesting that seems to be going on: "care less" is being reinterpreted with a new meaning. You can confirm this by searching for "don't care less." This is increasingly being used (even in print) to mean "don't give a damn." In fact, I've seen it in a parallel construction: "He didn't give a damn about X. He didn't care less about Y. He just wanted Z." The bizarre thing is that that almost works for me, even though I can see how odd it is. And I'm old and set in my ways.

This is going to be tricky in the future, though. Normally, when a pair of words gets assigned a new meaning, distinct from the meaning of those words separately, the words eventually get merged. But "careless" is already a word that means something else entirely.

edit: Oh, and I just checked, and the phrase was indeed originally "heels over head". Back in the 14th c.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Sun Sep 20, 2015 8:11 am UTC

Hilarious. There was I, just about to compose a reply justifying why "head over heels" makes sense, when I saw your edit. The phrase used to bother me as a child for exactly that reason, and in the end I convinced myself it was a slightly different sense of "over": not simply " above" but "above and moving laterally with respect to", as in "a bird flew over the house". If one's head is moving horizontally with respect to one's heels, there is necessarily an element of rotational motion which, if continued, will inevitably result in a coming together of face and ground. But now I learn that the two words have exchanged places at some point in the last half millennium.

In any case, there is no such problem with the much superior phrase "arse over tit" (which, incidentally, is gender-neutral).

ETA: this reminds me that I meant to reply to this:
gmalivuk wrote:But there's always a difference between the literal meaning and the idiomatic meaning of idioms. That's what makes them idioms in the first place. Otherwise they'd just be literal descriptions of things.

I had a "whoah" moment when I read this, but the Great Wiki seemed to agree, spending most of the page discussing the relationship between literal and idiomatic meaning. But surely "heels over head" would be an idiom, even though it's also a literal description? Likewise "peace and quiet" and the like - they literally mean what they idiomatically mean, but are found together as phrases far more often than would be the case from their meaning alone (you never hear "quiet and peace", for example). Are these not idioms, but something else?

I also got thinking about how the word "idiom" has been applied to software engineering. For a computer language idiom, the meaning has to be the literal meaning, since that's how computers process the language. Having said that, modern languages like ruby, with lambdas, missing method implementations and the like, allow much greater use of metaprogramming, with the result that the meaning of a piece of code could in a sense be quite different to what it appears to mean. There is a file somewhere that defines it, but that's a bit like the "file" that human language speakers carry around to provide definitions for idioms.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby ps.02 » Mon Sep 21, 2015 3:32 pm UTC

orthogon wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:But there's always a difference between the literal meaning and the idiomatic meaning of idioms. That's what makes them idioms in the first place. Otherwise they'd just be literal descriptions of things.

I had a "whoah" moment when I read this, but the Great Wiki seemed to agree, spending most of the page discussing the relationship between literal and idiomatic meaning. But surely "heels over head" would be an idiom, even though it's also a literal description? Likewise "peace and quiet" and the like - they literally mean what they idiomatically mean, but are found together as phrases far more often than would be the case from their meaning alone (you never hear "quiet and peace", for example). Are these not idioms, but something else?

I agree with gmalivuk's definition; in my view, idioms are a subset of fixed phrases. Peace and quiet, which is used to mean pretty much what it literally means, is a fixed phrase but not an idiom.

Head over heels or its "more correct" origin, heels over head, can be used literally -- but I think it is usually used idiomatically, to mean to a disorienting degree. E.g., head over heels in love does not mean that someone is in love and also literally upside down. Really it says someone is so in love that they feel disorientation and distraction similar to what one might experience while tumbling down a hill.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby whydoihavetoregister » Mon Sep 21, 2015 7:59 pm UTC

for when to again go my behind above around through the time when not again going yesterday by again not through matrix sent tomorrow before center middle topic waste through again going not.


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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby chridd » Tue Sep 22, 2015 2:05 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:But there's always a difference between the literal meaning and the idiomatic meaning of idioms. That's what makes them idioms in the first place. Otherwise they'd just be literal descriptions of things.
gmalivuk wrote:Yes, but why are these the examples in that set? Why "could care less" but not "could give a damn"?
Yes, there's a difference between the literal and idiomatic meaning of idioms, but there's also sometimes a connection between the meanings, like a metaphor or exaggeration. I wonder if one of the reasons that some idioms bother some people is that they see the connection, but it doesn't quite work. For instance, I haven't had a problem with the phrase "head over heels" because, to me, the connection between the literal meaning of that phrase and the idiomatic meaning "in love" isn't obvious to me (I don't remember ever hearing it used to literally mean upside-down), and similarly "could give a damn"'s literal meaning isn't really obvious; whereas the phrase "have your cake and eat it too" seems to have a meaning to me, but doesn't work. I wonder if people who are bothered by "could care less" make the connection "couldn't care less = zero caring" whereas others don't.

Why "literally" and not "truly"?
Because truly isn't specifically about not being figurative, plus when truly is an intensifier it doesn't seem to usually be used with untrue or figurative things. The problem isn't just that a word is being used figuratively or as an intensifier, but rather that a word whose job is specifically to say "this isn't figurative" is used figuratively and with figurative statements. (Or rather, one of its jobs is to say "this isn't figurative", and it's an obvious combination of a word whose only job is to say "this isn't figurative" plus a suffix that usually just makes a word an adverb.)

(I'm not sure how much these explanations matter vs. other explanations, such as what phrases people grew up with, what phrases/usages people hear others complain about (Copper Bezel's explanation), etc. For literally in particular, I suppose, it could also be symbolic—if someone doesn't like figurative language and likes literal language, then figurative use of literally is like figurative language taking literal language's home or something...)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 22, 2015 2:23 am UTC

whydoihavetoregister wrote:for when to again go my behind above around through the time when not again going yesterday by again not through matrix sent tomorrow before center middle topic waste through again going not.


You don't understand? That's your problem, pal. Try harder to learn my ideolect.

Stick to computers, Munroe.
Stick to commenting on things you actually understand, how 'bout?

What gymnastic bit of illogic always gets you people from "Language changes according to how people use it" to "Language has no rule fuck everything I want to watch the world burn!!!"?

chridd wrote:
Why "literally" and not "truly"?
Because truly isn't specifically about not being figurative, plus when truly is an intensifier it doesn't seem to usually be used with untrue or figurative things. The problem isn't just that a word is being used figuratively or as an intensifier, but rather that a word whose job is specifically to say "this isn't figurative" is used figuratively and with figurative statements. (Or rather, one of its jobs is to say "this isn't figurative", and it's an obvious combination of a word whose only job is to say "this isn't figurative" plus a suffix that usually just makes a word an adverb.)
How did "literally" get that job, though? Was it, perhaps, by the very same common usage that has now given it an additional job as an oft-hyperbolic intensifier?

I did just come across an article with an explanation I quite like for the whining people like to do about some usages and not others: "This type of simplistic gripe satisfies the need to feel smarter than someone else without thinking too deeply about how language operates."
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Ermes Marana » Tue Sep 22, 2015 4:59 am UTC

xtifr wrote:And if you get too caught up in whining about how it's "wrong", you'll end up missing something even more interesting that seems to be going on: "care less" is being reinterpreted with a new meaning. You can confirm this by searching for "don't care less." This is increasingly being used (even in print) to mean "don't give a damn." In fact, I've seen it in a parallel construction: "He didn't give a damn about X. He didn't care less about Y. He just wanted Z." The bizarre thing is that that almost works for me, even though I can see how odd it is. And I'm old and set in my ways.



This agrees with my experience of how it is used. Sarcasm, no. Form of a question, no. Pure thoughtless idiom, no.

On some level people must be aware of how dumb it is, and therefore would be forced to redefine "care less", even outside the idiom, to mitigate the psychological damage. And they have:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/language ... 01202.html

"Marcus Wilkins a player with ability but a player who cares less and just wants the paycheck.."

"Michelle lives in an apartment who can barely afford to pay rent, who also lives with a druggie room mate who cares less about her, and her boyfriend abuses Michelle and she's afraid to break up with him."

"The same as my wife (an artist who cares less about motorcars and the like) can start her car and drive around happily, everybody could be able to install Amaya (or any other program) without worrying about the PC internals."


Basically, "less", when combined with "care", is being used to mean "an infinitesimally small amount", so:

1. Cares less
2. Doesn't care less
3. Could care less
4. Couldn't care less
5. Doesn't care

All mean the same thing.

I can imagine confusion arising from this: "you should care less what people think about you". Care less, or care none? Indeed, I never thought "could care less" was as crystal clear as some would have us believe. It is a sensible expression that means something totally different than the idiom which shares the same words. But after finding all these examples, none bother me quite like "could care less", so I'm left with one conclusion:

I will maintain a healthy, life-affirming hatred of the phrase because it hits my ears like Superman slapping me with a decomposing beached whale.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby chridd » Tue Sep 22, 2015 5:38 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:How did "literally" get that job, though? Was it, perhaps, by the very same common usage that has now given it an additional job as an oft-hyperbolic intensifier?
Am I correct in assuming that you're hinting at the argument that, because "literal" at some point in the past meant "relating to letters" before changing to mean "not figurative", that "literally" should also be able to change to be an intensifier? If so, my arguments against:
• I don't think the problem has to do with where the word comes from or how language changes, but rather with English as it stands today. That is, I don't think it would be an issue if the terms literal and literally only used to mean "not figurative"; rather, the problem is that the terms still do mean "non-figurative".
• Arguments against figurative literally don't have to apply to figurative language or language change in general.
• People arguing against figurative literally aren't claiming that changes to language and figurative usages don't happen (or, if they do, then those specific people are wrong), but that they would prefer that people not use literally that way.

I did just come across an article with an explanation I quite like for the whining people like to do about some usages and not others: "This type of simplistic gripe satisfies the need to feel smarter than someone else without thinking too deeply about how language operates."
Perhaps there are people who argue against figurative literally, could care less, etc. for that reason. But that doesn't mean that everyone arguing against these usages is like that, and if people assume that they are, then that's likely to lead to people hating each other for bad reasons (i.e., because they think people are trying to show off that they're smarter when they're really just annoyed by a particular usage) and getting into unpleasant arguments against strawman versions of the other side.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Tue Sep 22, 2015 8:23 am UTC

chridd wrote:[ Lots of good stuff, including ...]
• People arguing against figurative literally aren't claiming that changes to language and figurative usages don't happen (or, if they do, then those specific people are wrong), but that they would prefer that people not use literally that way.
[...]

This is more or less the nub of it, I think. You can accept 100% that language changes in an organic manner and that there's nothing wrong with that, whilst still enjoying the precision with which words can be used if effort is made to maintain a shared understanding of the nuances of meaning. As somebody pointed out a few pages ago, the people who encourage other people to use words in a particular, conventional way, from "language mavens" through to classroom teachers, are part of the process of language development. In British English, alternative and alternate are currently two different words, and the latter is a very useful concept; many people like me who have grown up seeing and using them as two words would like to keep them that way, and this would in principle be completely possible through education. Almost certainly this distinction will be lost in practice, because in US English the two words are synonymous and the two Englishes are rapidly converging into a single community; and probably it's ok because perhaps it's always obvious from context which meaning is intended. I have shifted a long way on this: I used to be a lot more narrow-minded about American English (it's worth noting that a kind of mild anti-Americanism is behind a lot of British prescriptivism). But I think that as the world and society becomes ever more complex, we have an ever greater need for precision in language, and education has a role to play in that. For example, I guess that we'd agree that it's fine to teach people that pacific doesn't mean the same as specific.

It seems to me that the two positions are closer than would appear from the tone of some of this thread. Repeated use of emotive language like "whining" doesn't help. At what point does teaching turn into whining? What proportion of a language community has to use a word in a particular way before correcting somebody's error becomes prescriptivist "Nazism"?
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 22, 2015 12:01 pm UTC

I don't think the feeling smarter thinking is why people have a problem with "literally" in the first place, but I do think it explains why they vocally complain about it in such numbers.

And if the issue is two *current* apparently contradictory meanings, I have to ask again about words like "fast" and "cleave". Why are their contrasting meanings never subject to as much complaint as "literally"?

(Incidentally, a shared understanding of the nuances of language would include an understanding of how "literally" has been used, for 300+ years, as an intensifier in addition to the slightly older meaning.)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby speising » Tue Sep 22, 2015 12:07 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I don't think the feeling smarter thinking is why people have a problem with "literally" in the first place, but I do think it explains why they vocally complain about it in such numbers.

And if the issue is two *current* apparently contradictory meanings, I have to ask again about words like "fast" and "cleave". Why are their contrasting meanings never subject to as much complaint as "literally"?

(Incidentally, a shared understanding of the nuances of language would include an understanding of how "literally" has been used, for 300+ years, as an intensifier in addition to the slightly older meaning.)

Ca you construct sentences where "fast" and "cleave" are used in an ambivalent way? I think "literally" is ambivalent in literally every use case of the intensifier form.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Copper Bezel » Tue Sep 22, 2015 12:27 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:(Incidentally, a shared understanding of the nuances of language would include an understanding of how "literally" has been used, for 300+ years, as an intensifier in addition to the slightly older meaning.)

Depends on which nuances and what expectations they're expecting and performing to. The fact that there are groups of people who complain at least hints that there are groups of people who prefer a particular usage and always mean x when saying y. That doesn't relate directly to "correcting" others, of course, but it's perfectly possible for two people who know each other to know in conversation with one another that "literally" probably won't be an empty intensifier in this conversation, even if they fully understand or even use it that way elsewhere. You can't say "it's usage, and this is how it is" any more universally than you can "it's x authority, and this is how it is."

Personally, I find myself often enough in the situation of needing to concisely acknowledge that a thing is a common metaphor or piece of hyperbole but isn't meant that way in the present sentence that I really do reserve my use of "literally" to those cases - while wildly "abusing" "ironic" and "epic" and quite a lot of other common pedant grammarian pet-peeve words, because I'm only very rarely talking about cases where a fictional character is unaware of the consequences of an action that the audience already knows or very long poems describing grandiose events.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 22, 2015 12:40 pm UTC

speising wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:I don't think the feeling smarter thinking is why people have a problem with "literally" in the first place, but I do think it explains why they vocally complain about it in such numbers.

And if the issue is two *current* apparently contradictory meanings, I have to ask again about words like "fast" and "cleave". Why are their contrasting meanings never subject to as much complaint as "literally"?

(Incidentally, a shared understanding of the nuances of language would include an understanding of how "literally" has been used, for 300+ years, as an intensifier in addition to the slightly older meaning.)

Ca you construct sentences where "fast" and "cleave" are used in an ambivalent way? I think "literally" is ambivalent in literally every use case of the intensifier form.

Speaking of using words correctly, don't you mean "ambiguous"?

I don't think "literally" is as ambiguous as people claim. It's generally as easy to tell when it's figurative as any other expression.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby speising » Tue Sep 22, 2015 1:19 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Speaking of using words correctly, don't you mean "ambiguous"?

yes, thanks.
gmalivuk wrote:I don't think "literally" is as ambiguous as people claim. It's generally as easy to tell when it's figurative as any other expression.


There are situations where you'd *think* an expression is meant figuratively, but it actually occured as described.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby rmsgrey » Tue Sep 22, 2015 3:13 pm UTC

speising wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:I don't think "literally" is as ambiguous as people claim. It's generally as easy to tell when it's figurative as any other expression.

There are situations where you'd *think* an expression is meant figuratively, but it actually occured as described.

Yeah, given that the whole point of the non-figurative "literally" is literally to make clear that a description isn't figurative despite people generally using it as such, it's kinda non-obvious whether a particular instance is doing that, or literally being used figuratively.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby orthogon » Tue Sep 22, 2015 3:41 pm UTC

rmsgrey wrote:
speising wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:I don't think "literally" is as ambiguous as people claim. It's generally as easy to tell when it's figurative as any other expression.

There are situations where you'd *think* an expression is meant figuratively, but it actually occured as described.

Yeah, given that the whole point of the non-figurative "literally" is literally to make clear that a description isn't figurative despite people generally using it as such, it's kinda non-obvious whether a particular instance is doing that, or literally being used figuratively.


Exactly.

"A pipe burst and and I'm literally knee-deep in dirty water."
"Mike and Dave literally came to blows in the project meeting."
"The Al-Qaida guy literally exploded when somebody suggested he was taking the whole Islam thing too seriously."

It would only be obvious from context if the literal interpretation were in some way physically impossible: "I was on hold for literally a hundred years", "he was driving at literally a billion miles an hour".
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue Sep 22, 2015 9:27 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Speaking of using words correctly, don't you mean "ambiguous"?

I don't think "literally" is as ambiguous as people claim. It's generally as easy to tell when it's figurative as any other expression.


Agreed. Often, the non-literal use is something that is absurd, or at least extremely improbable. I'll grant that overuse of it is annoying, but not really any less annoying than someone who pretends to believe something utterly impossible because he's being pedantic.

Hell, if spoken, inflection, both for this, and for the "I could care less", usually gets you there, and most of the time, context is a pretty good guide.

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Copper Bezel » Tue Sep 22, 2015 11:20 pm UTC

orthogon wrote:Exactly.

"A pipe burst and and I'm literally knee-deep in dirty water."
"Mike and Dave literally came to blows in the project meeting."
"The Al-Qaida guy literally exploded when somebody suggested he was taking the whole Islam thing too seriously."

It would only be obvious from context if the literal interpretation were in some way physically impossible: "I was on hold for literally a hundred years", "he was driving at literally a billion miles an hour".

Yep. I still think the use as an intensifier is ugly for its own sake, but I really do think that the ambiguity in the cases that people are actually annoyed by isn't usually resolved by sentence context, but by assumptions about the speaker or whatnot instead. It's not a usage that is sometimes ambiguous, the ambiguous case is the problematic usage. And it does often require mental backtracking, for me at least, in the way that mentally inserting commas for people does.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Wed Sep 23, 2015 5:37 am UTC

orthogon wrote:"A pipe burst and and I'm literally knee-deep in dirty water."
"Mike and Dave literally came to blows in the project meeting."
"The Al-Qaida guy literally exploded when somebody suggested he was taking the whole Islam thing too seriously."

It would only be obvious from context if the literal interpretation were in some way physically impossible: "I was on hold for literally a hundred years", "he was driving at literally a billion miles an hour".


And that's how people tend to use it. Either with a well-known and improbable metaphor ("He was literally rolling in wealth" —Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer, 1876), a simple impossibility ("Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same." —Alexander Pope, 1708), or a hyper-exaggeration (your suggestion of "driving at literally a billion miles an hour"). If your three initial examples above were actual examples, rather than made-up, I would assume that at least the first two were using the older sense of "literally". (And the so-called newer sense, as you see from a couple of my quotes above, is hardly new.)

The problem with your third example is that the word "explode" itself is ambiguous. One of the definitions is: "(of a person) suddenly give expression to violent and uncontainable emotion, especially anger." So saying literally literally doesn't help disambiguate. It has more than one literal meaning.

This is all not to say that there's zero chance for confusion. Obviously, the chance is much higher than zero. But in practice, it's far lower than the naysayers (and their contrived examples) usually suggest. People like to be understood. Those who are capable of it will make an effort to do so. And those who simply lack the skills to be clear have far greater problems than the simple "misuse" of this single word! :)

I, for example, tend to use "actually" instead of "literally", when I want to remove metaphoric interpretations. Look how nicely your first two examples clean up:

"A pipe exploded and I'm actually knee-deep in water."
"Mike and Dave actually came to blows in the project meeting."

And, of course, nothing helps your third example, because the modifiers aren't the problem. It's inherently ambiguous no matter what you do.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Sep 23, 2015 12:21 pm UTC

Yeah, even when naysayers can come up with ambiguous examples, that's hardly relevant in a language where ambiguity is so easy to have even in uncontroversially grammatically perfect sentences. If I'm not interested in explicitly disambiguating, I'm going to produce unclear sentences with or without intensifier "literally", subjunctive "was", the Oxford comma, or any of the other things people argue for or against on that shaky ground.

(And of course, sarcasm and outright lying also continue to exist, even in apparently totally unabmiguous sentences.)
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Lenoxus » Wed Sep 23, 2015 8:48 pm UTC

I'm sorry I missed out on this at the beginning, because this is one of my biggest grammar-peeve-peeves, alongside my annoyance at the bogus argument that it's incorrect to modify "unique".

(I actually do sort of agree with the pedants about "literal", simply because I think it's useful to have a word with that kind of meaning, and frustrating that any such word is inevitably co-opted by the generic-intensifier meaning. I guess using such a word always gives that extra oomph — "The situation was so extreme that I'm not even being metaphorical or hyperbolic about it (psst I am but don't tell anyone)" Trying to maintain a word with a "literal"-type meaning is like trying to make a forum with upvote-downvote-report buttons and hoping no one uses "report" as a super-downvote. Only worse, in that it's basically guaranteed nearly everyone will.)

Anyway, in addition to basic descriptivist arguments in support of "could care less", I think the purely-logical approach used by prescriptivists can be turned around on them, in at least two ways.

First. The classic "Oh, but that means you do care! Your phrase therefore makes no sense! Checkmate!" is an insistence on hyperbole, and only hyperbole, being "correct". It's like if someone said "I'm hungry enough to eat a whole pizza" and the pedants' response was "But that implies there are still pizzas left in the universe, so your statement makes no sense. The correct form is 'I'm hungry enough to eat all the pizzas.' "

Second. Imagine A's sweetheart, B, telling A "I could love you a lot less." Does that sound exactly as romantic as "I love you a lot"? The word "could" doesn't just refer to pure logical possibility in the sense of "X is not true, therefore X could become true." It also entails practical and/or psychological possibility. Saying "I could care less" absolutely does not apply in all situations where the care-level is greater than 0. Caring is a process. Someone who admits the possibility of caring less about something is saying that their emotional center points in the direction of caring less.

By the same token, "couldn't care less" doesn't necessarily mean the care level is 0. In principle, it could also be like saying "There is no possible future in which I care less than I do right now".

"Mr. Politician, do you care about America?"

"I'm glad you asked that. I care about America more than anything in the world, and I couldn't care less, not in a million years."

Of course, when people say "I couldn't care less", I'm not going to pretend they failed to give information because what they said is logically compatible with the above meaning. Thats because I know perfectly damn well what they mean, as do nearly all pedants in nearly all situations that prompt their pedantry. (Not actually knowing what is meant — under certain admittedly-rare conditions — is why I remain wary about the modern use of "literal".)

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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby xtifr » Thu Sep 24, 2015 6:00 am UTC

Lenoxus wrote:(Not actually knowing what is meant — under certain admittedly-rare conditions — is why I remain wary about the modern use of "literal".)


Modern use?

"Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same." —Alexander Pope, 1708

I think that after more than three centuries we can stop calling it "newfangled" and whining about "kids these days".  :wink:

eta: also, I think three centuries means your wariness is perhaps a bit, um, postmature? :D

Overall, though, I liked your post, and also wish you'd been here earlier to participate in the discussion. Your point about usefulness (even though it was in reference to "literally") made me realize that "could care less" is really an otherwise useless phrase. There is basically no point to telling someone that there is a smaller amount of caring you could provide. This really frees it up to become the bizarre inverted fixed phrase we see today. Sure, it's odd, but the fact that nobody would ever say that and mean it literally makes it that much easier to recognize that it's not meant literally.

I think you were heading in a similar direction, but I'm not entirely sure.
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Re: 1576: "I Could Care Less"

Postby Lenoxus » Fri Sep 25, 2015 2:07 am UTC

Modern use?

"Every day with me is literally another yesterday for it is exactly the same." —Alexander Pope, 1708

I think that after more than three centuries we can stop calling it "newfangled" and whining about "kids these days".


I shouldn't have said "modern", I just mean to distinguish it from the "purist" use. My problem definitely isn't with "kids these days" — I thought I made my displeasure with prescriptivism clear enough.

I do think there are situations of potential genuine confusion. For example, from earlier in the thread: "they literally came to blows". That's probably intended as saying that the fight was so intense that actual punches were exchanged, but it might just be meant as hyperbole. Of course further conversation will clarify, but it's frustrating that further conversation is needed, instead of the conciseness of a single word.

Just to thoroughly shed both my prescriptivist and descriptivist credentials: I feel that as bad as the "literally" thing is, it's far worse that English doesn't have a totally adequate gender-neutral pronoun in widespread use. "They" doesn't fit that bill until someone can say something like "Obama said they would sign the bill tomorrow, but Carly Fiorina said that if they were elected, they would try undoing the law" — without causing confusion. (For comparison: Replace Carly Fiorina with Jeb Bush and all "they"s with "he"s.)

In short, I try to think in "reformist" terms. Regardless of whether a usage is old, contemporary, or from the future thanks to time-travel, we should get rid of the bad and keep the good.


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