Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gay Sheriff? I care less! I could care less, but I couldn't care less.

A recent Associated Press story, reporting from Arizona, on the coming out of Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu at a news conference included an interesting phrase I had not heard before, coming from a supporter of the sheriff, who was trying to reconcile the sheriff's public statement of homosexuality with the supporter's own traditional conservative Republican hardline stance on God, guns, and, yes, gays:
Consider the comments of Bill Halpin, a 64-year-old ex-Air Force pilot who serves on the local tea party board: “I care less. I just care less. Don’t preach it on me. Don’t push it on me and, by golly, I respect your rights.”
I care less, full stop. An interesting standalone phrase, used to express a devil-may-care attitude, perhaps even a professed dismissive nonchalance, with the hint of a barbed defense, on the speaker's part. While this phrase was new to me, I have certainly heard of other phrases people use to express a similar sentiment: "I could care less", full stop. Or "I couldn't care less", period.

Is "I care less" related to the aforementioned two phrases? They all seem related, and it's even possible one came before the other before the other, rather than they all arose at about the same time; "I care less" could be a clipped or shortened form of "I could care less", which could be a clipped or shortened form of "I couldn't care less". Those who are into the origins of words or phrases know that the Oxford English Dictionary does the work of tracking down the first recorded instances of a word or phrase being investigated, but I have not performed the necessary etymological research to reach an informed conclusion. While it's possible that "I couldn't care less" came first, and after some time "I could care less" arose and became widely used, and now, we have "I care less", the focus of my piece will be on how "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less" are used to express the same sentiment. Upon first encounter, an audience of one would be right to reach the conclusion that a literal interpretation of the two gives one the sense that they seem to convey two entirely different, even polar opposite, meanings.

A common saying about the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, in Hollywood especially, is that no one ever says no: "In this town, they kill you with yes." The idea is, anyone you meet could become very popular, accomplished, esteemed, powerful, rich, and in an enviable position. On the road to success, particularly in movies, television and music, but also in the related creative fields of fashion, photography, design, culinary arts, writing, and performance, there are few, if any, rules, and many exceptions, to making it big; the person who you very pointedly say no to today, who you offend with your rejection, in whose face you shut your door, that person may become a star overnight, and tomorrow, is in a position to say no to you. So, because people are social animals, even if you mean "no", you always say "yes":

Judy Greer and David Duchovny_The TV Set (2006) from Thuon Chen on Vimeo.

A similar thing may be happening in the brain with "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less". My immediate reaction to your proposal may be, I do not like your idea or even think it will work. Since the spirit of the times is, people don't ever want to burn bridges, I want to take the potentially dangerous step of rejecting something that you seem invested in, without seeming to do so. While "I couldn't care less" may be technically correct, and how I really feel, the problem is, it's too harsh. So instead, I say, "I could care less"; the idea being communicated is "I care, enough that it's quantifiable, and in fact, the amount of concern I have is distant from not caring at all", advancing the idea first that I, as the speaker, care, and once you see and hear the train of "yes" roar through, the engine is followed by the caboose, that, perhaps, the speaker might not care at all, or at least, not as much as you, as the listener, do.

It's certainly an idea, but I'll admit it's a little far-fetched. Usually, a person's face and body are contorted a certain way, or, in the heat of the moment, the shaking of the head, the look of defiance, the surrounding words, the unspoken information, all reveal and reinforce the speaker's true thoughts when exclaiming "I could care less" on a topic, so the idea that omitting the "n't" sound at the end of "could" is a believable way to spare a person's feelings seems a bit of a stretch. So here's another way to understand why people would rather say "I could care less" than "I couldn't care less". They really could care less! When it comes to using contradictory phrases to mean the same thing, I maintain that this practice is closely related to how people interchange "I couldn't give two bits", or "I could give two bits", or in the comfort of your home, among familiars, sometimes you may use coarser language to express your relative unconcern: "I couldn't give two [censored]", or "I could give a [censored]".

Thus, a final try to understand this phenomena of hearing someone say, "I could care less," or even "I care less", when he or she means "I couldn't care less" is, because the speaker is really saying what he or she means, but in shorthand, and, crucially, with the listener in mind. "I could care less" means "I could care less than how much you apparently think I should, but I won't even make an effort to, because I don't care at all." "I care less" means "I care less than you think I should care." Verbal shorthand is when, to save time, you substitute a shorter word or phrase for a much longer and unwieldy one, or, getting back to the first point, in order to save someone's feelings from getting hurt, verbal shorthand can be when you substitute a fuzzier, less clear word or phrase for an unambiguous one. Sometimes, this verbal shorthand uses a substitute that is the exact opposite of what you mean to say. So, in essence, the speaker seems to literally say "I care", but the message of "I don't care" is understood by the listener and the speaker.

By this time, our overly long discussion on language minutiae perhaps has you caring even less than you thought you could've possibly cared. I can tell by you glancing at your watch and tapping your foot that you couldn't, or could, care less. In that case, let us end with the immortal words of Green Day's American Idiot, "I don't care if you don't care."

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