Summary: Rote phrases are weird. In fact, you might could say that they are idiots: dumb to the world around, atomistic particles infused with a modicum of meaning; but essentially endowed with an expected place and outcome, even when they stop having anything like that. Take Couldn't Care Less, which is now said in the States as Could Care Less, and ask yourself what that really means.
Could you or couldn't you care any less? British comedians harangue a particular American idiom...
I promise to make this one brief. I say that, from time to time, and rarely deliver, but, by the Gods, I only have like ten minutes to write this one so I have to get cracked. Could you care less? (That's what we call a horrid segue, I apologize.)
While I rarely use the phrase (there is something un-Doug about it), there is the classic phrase "I couldn't care less". In other words, you care zero. Zilch. None. Nada. It would be emotionally impossible to have less care. Your care tank is empty. Or, well, in some bizarro world, I guess it could mean that you care as little as you possible can, and that "as little" might actually be a lot. "How much do you care about this country, Patriot Extreme?" "I couldn't care less...because I always care 100%!"
For some reason, in America, we like to say "I could care less". This is to the irritation of such British comedians as John Cleese and David Mitchell:
Why they both went for almost exactly the same presentation style there, I don't know, maybe it has something to do with all the tea they drink. Their point, though, is that saying "I could care less" just means "I care some amount" which is absolutely pointless. It is like saying, "I have some hair," which says nothing about where or how much or what color or etc. Watch their take since I won't really be repeating their points: they've done it and I don't feel like using blue-screen graphs this morning. My tea hasn't kicked in, yet.
At any rate, I decided to stick up for all of us American idiots (my own card in the American idiot club notwithstanding) just a little and tried pointing out that saying "could care less" in some ways is like saying "The girl is not unattractive". While you are remarking on the extent of the positive quality, you are in some ways contrasting the trivial amount of the positive quality the fact that there is the brink of the negative*. "How much is in the cup, Doug?" "Well, the cup is not empty..." with a little sigh is a clear indication that the cup is nearly empty, but not yet. If, you know, the tone of voice says that. The tone of voice could clearly me going, "Um, the cup is completely full and splashing on my hands and it burns, so let's just say it's not empty to mock you..."
I did admit that I did not quite have a point, because in all honesty, the phrase can be imbued with a number of meanings giving inflection and intonation and context. Just like "couldn't care less" assumes that you mean zero instead of some other arbitrary given and in some situations could mean something like the opposite. It is just your average gent or lady will mean whichever they use to mean the same thing: they simply do not care. So, yes, David Mitchell and John Cleese, you are right and we are using it wrong, kind of, as much as you can use any rote speech wrong. Some are kind of silly, you know, talking about blue skies and old cats and such.
*: Again, there are a number of factors here. I've heard some men use it to say "at least we won't need a paperbag" and I have heard some use it to mean "She is, in fact, quite attractive but I am playing it off as meaningless because you don't say things so obvious. Do you want to talk about how wet water is, next?"
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