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What does "I Could Care Less" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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"I could care less" is one of those idiomatic expressions, particularly in American English, that doesn’t necessarily mean what it says. There are many suggestions for the origin of the phrase, the most recent of which is that it's a corruption of "I couldn’t care less," possibly first used in the UK in the 1940s. By the 1960s, Americans had adopted the slightly modified version, perhaps out of laziness, poor hearing or deliberate irony.

Many contend it was laziness, much like the phrase “a hot cup of coffee,” changing to, "who wants a hot cup?" Most people would prefer to have a cup of hot coffee, or eat their cake and have it too. Simple reversals or omissions of words can result in someone saying that they could care less when they really don’t care at all.

There is some suggestion that the phrase "I could care less" may have been adopted because it fit into certain Yiddish phrases that deliberately mean the opposite and can be viewed as sarcastic. Such phrases include, "I should be so lucky," which really means that someone is not likely to have the luck. Another phrase, "Tell me about it," means the opposite, and it's merely a way to agree with the speaker. Alternately, speaking the term "Testify!" as used in certain Christian churches is a similar agreement that seldom means someone is actually going to sit down or stand up and give a testimony of how they converted to Christianity.

Another theory, advanced by linguistics specialist Henry Churchyard, suggested the statement "You know nothing and you care less," used in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, is the origin of the term. If this were the case, the "know nothing" would be comparative to caring less than the little you know. The current version of the phrase would then represent idiom by omission.

It should be stated that Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s least popular books, and was not well liked by the critics during Austen’s time and thereafter. That people would quote from it is in significant dispute, but if Austen used the term as one common to her day, it’s possible it was already in use. The whole quote, "You know nothing and you care less, as people say," is important because it advances the possibility the phrase was in use in Austen’s day and she is not its inventor.

In any case, "I could care less," is typically interpreted as not caring at all. Whether by omission, design, laziness or quote, it’s one of those mixed up idioms that plagues learners of English.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon280271 — On Jul 16, 2012

If post number 13 is correct then Clark Gable in 'Gone with the wind" should have said "Frankly my dear I give a damn!" P.S. I am English and everyone here says, "I couldn't care less." It always sounds very strange

said the opposite way.

By anon276494 — On Jun 24, 2012

Since I first heard the phrase used, it was understood as an abbreviation of: "I care so little, (to a point where) I couldn't care less".

By anon270286 — On May 22, 2012

Post 36. If you are going to make such claims, please back them up with evidence. Just had a look, and the first few sources I read placed the US outside the top 5.

By anon244489 — On Feb 01, 2012

@anon146885: No one is trying to argue that the sentence "i could care less" is grammatically incorrect. Everyone (should) know that that sentence is, of course, correct in terms of proper grammar. The only point that should be made here is that people who are actually trying to say that they don't care about something but use the phrase "i could care less" are using the wrong phrase and are doing it out of stupidity or ignorance. I'll never believe that they use that phrase sarcastically.

TV shows and movies use "i could care less" all the time, and the character is clearly trying to say that they don't care. And to that point, even if its usage by the writer and/or actor was on purpose (for whatever reason), it's still wrong. Just because people know what you're trying to say doesn't make the phrase you used correct on the back end. You tried to say you don't care at all, and you failed, because based on what you said, you actually do care, and could realistically care a lot.

By anon238961 — On Jan 06, 2012

Post 13 is correct. It is a succinct, correctly punctuated comment. It feels like a life raft amidst a raging ocean of intellectual incapacity.

By anon234063 — On Dec 10, 2011

Re: "You know, if you cared about something so much..."

That would be "I wouldn't care less"' not "I couldn't care less."

By anon234061 — On Dec 10, 2011

"Americans are very egocentric people. They only think of themselves."

Yet Americans give more to charity, per capita, than any other country.

By anon229736 — On Nov 15, 2011

I personally don't use either phrase since I typically care. Given the wrong mood, though, I may use something much stronger instead.

I'm on here to read what others think about the phrase because one of my most intelligent friends used this phrase to me. That she directed the phrase at me upset me because it is a rude and dismissive phrase - that she used it "incorrectly" kind of surprised me and made me want to put it back in her face. I have since decided I will not go that route.

As much as I and others have analyzed the phrase I know a lot of very intelligent people who use the phrase "I could care less." They use it because it is just a phrase that has been established. The bottom line of communication is that the receiver knows what the sender means, not so that the receiver can get off on feeling smarter than the sender.

I wish we could keep the "stupid Americans" comments away. That actually makes you look stupider and ignorant for lumping all Americans in that category, and yes, I wrote "stupider" on purpose to adhere to the golden rule in forum posting that one must follow: when calling someone out for being dumb you must inevitably make some type of error.

By anon170594 — On Apr 26, 2011

If you were thrilled about how well your interview went, would you say to someone, "It could have gone better," or "It couldn't have gone better"?

If you want to express how overjoyed you feel, would it be "I couldn't be happier" or "I could be happier"? The first one, right? To show that "I'm so happy now that it's not possible to be any happier."

"I couldn't care less" is what this phrase originally was and is supposed to be. It means "I care so little about such-and-such matter that it's not possible for me to care any less."

A head of mush thinks "care" and "less" and "yeah that's it--a negative amount of caring" and gets the idiom wrong. It's not some subtle idea of "I could be persuaded to decrease some already low level of caring"--it's just a dumb mistake. People who use it are trying to say "I don't give a crap." Accept it!

By anon169937 — On Apr 24, 2011

You know, if you cared about something so much, and there was no way your level of caring would decrease, could you therefore truthfully say "I couldn't care less" to describe something you do in fact care about?

By anon147732 — On Jan 30, 2011

I'm not an english major but I do know what a stupid sounding phrase is. Anyone who argues that double negative crap to me is too wrapped up in their own heads to get the fact that if you 'Could care less...' it implies that you do care about something, and it doesn't sound sarcastic to me at all. Knowing what they mean and what they think they're saying to me just makes them too educated and lacking any common sense. Period!

By anon146885 — On Jan 27, 2011

"I could care less" has been a part of our speech since at least the 1960s and is not going to go away whether grammatical zealots like it or not. Its meaning, after all these decades, is as clear to the hearer or reader as any other acceptable idiom or expression.

When someone says "I'm afraid not" are they required to be full of fear before they utter those words? Of course not. And "I could care less" does not have to make sense from a grammatical standpoint in order, after more than 40 years, to stand on it's own merits. Grammatical fanatics drop it -- you lost the war!

By anon138728 — On Jan 02, 2011

The right way to say it is: "I couldn't care less," and it means: "I really don't mind whatever you do or say or decide. I don't even think about it!" It's not a nice thing to say. It's like ignoring someone. It's a very mean (bad) way to show that whatever you do, say or decide is not even going to be considered because he/she/they don't really give a damn! Very American.

It shows how much they feel about others who don't interest them. Americans are very egocentric people. They only think of themselves. This is the best explanation you can get over here!

The only problem is that others learn it very fast, just to reply the same way. So, learn fast and use it against someone who dislikes you. This is the most used expression in the USA.

By anon120510 — On Oct 21, 2010

What idiot posted the original explanation? "I could care less" is ungrammatical. What a stupid way of explaining it away. "I should be so lucky" is an example of hyperbole,(yeah, look it up). "I could care less" is just ignorance.

By anon118177 — On Oct 13, 2010

The way i see it is like this.

"I couldn't care less" - I have already reached zero care for the subject. I couldn't care any less than i currently do.

"I could care less" - I care, maybe i won't in the future.

By anon114105 — On Sep 27, 2010

While it always seemed wrong, the best way I could make sense of it is, "I care very little, but if you tempt me, I could find a way to care even less about it." I like the timeline explanation, that seems like the most rational explanation, rather than mine, which attempts to make sense of nonsense.

By anon111321 — On Sep 16, 2010

'couldn't care less' is the only correct usage. Those who use 'could care less' are guilty of only ignorance, never irony. 'nuff said.

By anon101213 — On Aug 02, 2010

It seems to be mostly Americans and other non-native English speakers who make the "I could care less" mistake.

Trying to cover by saying it is 'supposed to be ironic' doesn't wash. It is clear what they meant to say, these people are just parroting a phrase they have (mis)heard somewhere without consideration for what it actually means.

Similar to those who announce equally daft things like "the point is mute", and then imagine they are talking about the subject being silenced.

By anon97531 — On Jul 20, 2010

It's "I couldn't care less". It's not rocket science. The person who mentioned sarcasm needs to look up the definition of the word. You're clearly an intelligent person. Now there's some sarcasm.

By anon95464 — On Jul 12, 2010

It's "I couldn't care less."

Stupid and ignorant people abound and are the norm in present day societies, and it's only going to get worse. Barbaric tribes are alive and well and on the rise worldwide. The dumbing of society is in full control of the braindead masses.

By anon93965 — On Jul 06, 2010

The phrase "I could care less" is sarcastic. Not lazy, not misunderstood - sarcastic. It's not irony whatsoever. If you say "I could care less" while knowing the original phrase then you are intentionally taking something already offensive to another level by spitting it sarcastically.

-69 percent of Earth's matter is ironic. Just another reason to dislike the oceans.-

By anon93450 — On Jul 04, 2010

Sounds more idiotic than idiomatic.

By anon91290 — On Jun 21, 2010

It's "I couldn't care less". Stupid americans!

By anon87752 — On Jun 01, 2010

What you're all missing is that "I could care less" can also mean "I care a lot about it". Since if you care about something a lot, you can care less.

Hate this phrase.

By anon74129 — On Mar 31, 2010

For me, it's one of those easy and convenient litmus-tests for identifying imbeciles. Anyone who uses the phrase "I could care less" is clearly not worthy of being taken seriously. For those who think such pedantry doesn't matter: you are being judged all the time.

By anon71956 — On Mar 21, 2010

Regarding just about all of this, I don't care. How is that for clarity? It sounds like I'm coming up with a new expression, but what I'm really saying is why are you discussing such an inane topic in the first place? Who care when what occurred?

By anon71200 — On Mar 17, 2010

"I could care less" just means you care somewhat, but its possible for you to care even less. I hate people who think it's unacceptable to say it. there are no rules that determine how you should say it so either way is correct.

By anon68312 — On Mar 02, 2010

@anon62566: I think I have to slightly correct you there. If you say "kann man essen" in german, it can very well mean that it is barely edible also.

It really depends -- mostly on the situation, maybe on the locale. But you already mentioned Bavaria. They are odd anyway :-D (sorry, just kidding!)

By anon62566 — On Jan 27, 2010

Thanks anon19235, that's how I've always understood this phrase as well.

It reminds of a phrase that is used in Germany - I think specifically Bavaria - "kann man essen" which means "you can eat it". It's actually a way of saying something tastes very good, but it comes across as saying something is just edible.

By anon56350 — On Dec 14, 2009

I was a teenager in the early 1950s when "I could care less" originated. How it started was as "I could care less--but I don't know how." In other words, a wisecrack stating that "I couldn't imagine any way to care less" about a given topic. This form became so widely used that the second part of the phrase was omitted, as being universally understood. Then it was forgotten, leading to today's widespread confusion and indignation.

By anon40662 — On Aug 10, 2009

I utterly detest the use of the phrase "I could care less" as it has no logical significance at all.

I believe that "I couldn't care less" should always be used. I will, however, suggest that if you like the phrase "I could care less", you should pose it as a question, i.e. "I could care less, how?"

By golaud — On Jul 31, 2009

By the way, the "as if" that disappeared from "as if I could care less" eventually resurfaced as a standalone expression of indifference and contempt.

1990: I wasn't invited. As if.

By anon39127 — On Jul 30, 2009

I lived through the transition from "I couldn't care less" to "I could care less." It went approximately like this:

1950: I wasn't invited. I couldn't care less.

1955: I wasn't invited, as if I could care less.

1960: I wasn't invited, like I could care less.

1965: I wasn't invited. Like, I could care less.

1970: I wasn't invited. I could care less.

The word-emphasis of "I could care less" gives its origins away. We say "I *couldn't* care *less*," but we say "I could *care less*." The latter retains a distinct echo of the original "As if I could care less."

That's the long and short of it. No sarcasm or irony or Yiddish or anything else, only the relentless dumbing down of a silly phrase as it descended from the educated classes to the slangy masses.

By anon37743 — On Jul 21, 2009

I don't like to say "I could care less" because to me I'm saying I do care somewhat. When I say " I couldn't care less" to me it means I'm at the end of my rope, frustrated, angry, or numb, so there is no possibility for me to care at all.

By anon19235 — On Oct 08, 2008

I have to disagree with this assessment. For starters, it makes the same mistake as most by assuming that the phrase is intended to mean the exact same thing as its predecessor "I couldn't care less."

The phrase is obviously intended to add a little bit of irony to an otherwise banal statement. "I couldn't care less" is so prosaic and below someone of any literary capacity. The sense of "I could care less" is, "I care so very little about it, but I suppose it's possible for me to care less." Thus, across the spectrum of concern, while this issue doesn't fall at the very end, it comes pretty darn close. It adds a touch of nuance to an otherwise boring statement.

By bigmetal — On Feb 04, 2008

i've always said "i couldn't care less." thanks for clearing up that little mystery!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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