Jan Freeman celebrates (?) the 50th anniversary of the usage so many people love to hate:
It was 50 years ago this month — Oct. 20, 1960 — that one of America’s favorite language disputes showed up in print, in the form of a letter to Ann Landers. A reader wanted Ann to settle a dispute with his girlfriend: “You know that common expression: ‘I couldn’t care less,’ ” he wrote. “Well, she says it’s ‘I COULD care less.’ ”
Ann voted with her reader — “the expression as I understand it is ‘I couldn’t care less’ ” — but she thought the question was trivial. “To be honest,” she concluded, “this is a waste of valuable newspaper space and I couldn’t care less.”
She couldn’t have known it at the time, but her reader’s trivial question would be wasting newspaper space (and bandwidth, too) for decades, as it blossomed into one of the great language peeves of our time. In 1972, Ann’s sister and fellow advice-peddler, Dear Abby, used “could care less” in print herself, and got an earful from readers. In 1975, the Harper’s usage dictionary declared that “could care less” was “an ignorant debasement of the language.” (Said panelist Isaac Asimov: “I don’t know people stupid enough to say this.”) In 1979, William Safire declared in his New York Times column that “could care less” had finally run its course: “Like most vogue phrases, it wore out its welcome.”
But three decades on, “could care less” is flourishing. Ben Zimmer, examining its career last year in a column at the language website Visual Thesaurus, reported that “could care less” had steadily gained ground in edited prose. In American speech, according to research by linguist Mark Liberman, “could care less” is far ahead of the “couldn’t” version. And “could care less” is no recent corruption, Zimmer found; it shows up in print by 1955, only 11 years after the first sighting of “couldn’t care less.”
As Liberman observed in a 2004 post at Language Log, “could care less” is not uniquely odd. Its pattern is familiar in other phrases like “I could give a damn” (and its ruder variants), and in the lyrics of Sammy Cahn’s 1940s classic, “I Should Care.” But whatever its sources — sarcasm, irony, Yiddish, or (as its detractors say) ignorance — “could care less” is snugly embedded in the American idiom. Yet the complaints keep rolling in.
[more via I could care less – The Boston Globe.]