Bizarro world

Opposite idioms

In recent weeks, we talked about idioms that are misheard, and thus miswritten. Now, we’ll discuss some idioms that say the opposite of what they mean and whether they’re “acceptable” English.

As we mentioned some time ago, the title of Bill Walsh’s new book, Yes I Could Care Less, was scolded by LinkedIn for bad grammar. If you cancare less, the argument goes, it means you care some. “I could care less” grates on many ears, who want the more literal (but still idiomatic) “I couldn’t care less” to prevail. Garner’s Modern American Usage puts “I could care less” at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, on the way to becoming “acceptable.” “Although some apologists argue that I could care less is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally,” Garner’s says, “a more plausible explanation is that the -n’t of couldn’t has been garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing.” Unlike “nip in the butt,” also garbled in speech and writing, “I could care less” has legions of supporters. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says “both versions are used with approximately equal frequency.” In addition, it fits in with other idiom antonyms, like:

“It fell between the cracks.” Garner’s also calls this idiom “illogical,” since anything falling between the cracks will just bounce off the slats or tiles or whatever surface has the cracks. The “logical” phrase is “fall through the cracks.” While Garner’s lists “fall between the cracks” as Stage 2, less acceptable than “could care less,” popular usage is outpacing the Language-Change Index; in the past year, “through the cracks” and “between the cracks” yield a roughly equal number of uses in the Nexis database of tracked publications. The Dictionary of Idioms doesn’t even hint that there is anything wrong with “between the cracks,” and just discusses both versions.

Finally, there’s “near miss,” as in “Federal authorities are investigating a near-miss between two small planes at the local airport.” (The hyphen appears more often than it doesn’t.) The argument against it is that something that nearly missed didn’t miss at all; it hit something. In fact, its derivation is World War II, when a “near miss” by a bomb meant that some damage did occur. This one doesn’t even make Garner’s, but other usage authorities have objected to it for years. As early as 1981, William Safire hailed “near midair collision” as the correct terminology, where “The event described is ‘nearly a collision,’ and not ‘nearly a missed collision.’” Nearly 25 years later, he still called “near miss” “a nonsensical version of near thing.”

Alas—or thank heavens, depending on your view—“near miss” has been codified in dictionaries, without the hyphen. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, used by The Associated Press and many other news publications, says a “near miss” is “a narrowly averted collision; a near escape.” (It also accepts that a “near miss” “comes close enough to inflict some damage,” and is “any result that is nearly but not quite successful.”)

So it’s not even close: “Near miss” is a hit.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.