Caring, More Or Less

When a fellow I know (let’s call him Steven) was in high school, he made a serious tactical error. … He corrected a teacher.

Then Steven compounded the error by not checking his sources.

His chemistry teacher had said, “I could care less.” Steven said that was grammatically incorrect. The teacher — whose response manifested more personal chemistry than lexicography — said, “If you’re right, I’ll give you an A for the course.” They asked the English teacher to decide. Without citing chapter and verse, the English teacher “quoted” William Safire to the effect that language changes. Thus, the teachers ruled that “I could care less” is acceptable.

Outnumbered, Steven gave up. He should have looked it up.

True, Safire was no captain of the grammar guard ordering his troops to pour boiling oil down upon the barbarian horde storming the castle of correct English.

“The rules laid down by its elites,” Safire wrote of language, “are to be respected, and in writing usually followed, but in the end democracy, which goes by the name of common usage, will work its will. The teacher’s duty … is to resist cheap change and keep good order, but when the population challenges the order over a period of time, Norma Loquendi — the everyday voice of the native speaker — is the heroine who changes the order and raises a new Standard.”

“Norma Loquendi,” a phrase Safire drolly turned into a persona by capitalizing its initial letters, has a venerable history. Horace, Roman poet of the first century B.C.E., wrote in De Arte Poetica, “si volet usus/quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi (if it be the will of custom, in the power of whose judgment is the law and the standard of language …).

Still, Safire was no permissive host of a come-as-you-are language party. “Who are the Great Permitters?” he asked in On Language. “We are the people who care about clarity and precision, who detest fuzziness of expression that reveals sloppiness or laziness of thought. Henry Fowler was one; Ted Bernstein was one; Bergen Evans was one; Jacque Barzun is one; I’m one.”

Safire told of an ongoing conflict: “The first group, called Language Snobs, insists that the language of the past is correct and should be followed, and the second group, or Language Slobs, wallows in solecism and holds that any language used today is destined to be the brave new word of the future. English teachers are generally in the prescriptivist bunch and see themselves as clinging to the ramparts in heroic defense of the rules of clarity and precision in the native tongue, while lexicographers are usually in the descriptivist crowd, portraying themselves as scientific recorders of the reality of the living, growing language.”

One lexicographer with fond memories of William Safire is Ben Zimmer, his successor at The Times and now language columnist for The Wall St. Journal. In a memorial article, Zimmer wrote that Safire self-mockingly described his position as “the Language Maven.”

Granting his own lack of linguistic expertise, Safire mischievously smiled at the linguirati … while he articulately tweaked their knowses.

“While embracing the vividness of American speech,” Zimmer said, Safire “nonetheless considered himself a defender of ‘correct English’ — one feather in his cap was persuading Safeway stores to change their express-lane signs from ‘Ten Items or Less’ to ‘Ten Items or Fewer.’”

On the other hand, Safire’s respect for Norma Loquendi led him to champion such usage as hopefully in the sense of “It is hoped.” He took friendly fire for that lapse. James Kilpatrick wrote, “My beloved friend William Safire — the lousy quitter — in 1979 capitulated to the social workers of language and adopted the orphaned hopefully as his own.”

But Safire wrote a (premature) obituary for “could care less,” calling it “a barbaric attack on meaning.” He said the phrase was “petering out.”

But the report of its death was an exaggeration, Zimmer says. “Could care less” is alive and well — according to Norma Loquendi.

Still, in 2013, Bill Walsh would write in Yes, I Could Care Less, “In this corner are the sticklers, the prescriptivists. We are the copy editors, English teachers, usage mavens, armchair grammarians and others who revel in dos and don’ts and in our own opinions, who prescribe usage. If you’re a stickler, you deplore the idea of using could care less to mean couldn’t care less. What could be more obvious than a preference for saying what you mean over saying the exact opposite?”

Hopefully, Safire’s prediction of the demise will yet come true. He already wrote the eulogy:

“Farewell ‘could care less’! You symbolized the exaltation of slovenliness, the demeaning of meaning, and were used by those who couldn’t care less about confusing those who care about the use of words to make sense.”

If Steven and I are in town, we will cancel all other entertainment and attend the funeral.


Please send smiles, sticks and stones to