Recently, we've been revisiting some old disputes in alt.english.usage concerning such idioms as "could care less"/"couldn't care less" and "you've got another think coming"/"you've got another thing coming."

I've made certain arguments concerning what constitutes an idiom, in the sense "idiomatic expression," not "language" or "manner of speech." Yesterday I looked up the subject in three different books about the English language, from which I have excerpted the following:
From the entry "idiom" in Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (aMerriam-Webster publication which now goes by the name of *Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage*) (C) 1989:

(quote)
idiom Idiom is a word you will find with some frequency in this book, as in most usage books. It is not an especially precise word Roberts 1954 calls it "loose and unscientific" and it is generally used by usage writers for some construction or expression that they approve of but cannot analyze.
Roberts observes that for some reason idiom often refers in English to combinations involving prepositions and adverbs you will find plenty of those throughout this book. The word is also frequently applied to those expressions or constructions that either are not transparent from the usual current meanings of the individual words that make them up or that appear to violate some grammatical precept. Vizetelly 1906, for example, defended ice cream and ice water as idioms, because they had been attacked as illogical .

The tension between idiomatic usage and logical analysis is one of the chief sources of usage comment, and has been since at least the middle of the 18th century.
(end quote)
The following is from the entry for "idiom" in The Cambridge Guide to English Usage by Pam Peters, Cambridge University Press, (C) 2004:
(quote)
idiom
This word has been used in two ways in English, to refer to:
1 the collective usage of a particular group, as the idiom of sailors
2 a particular fixed phrase of ordinary usage, for example a redherring
The second use of idiom* is commoner by far nowadays. An *idiom in this sense is a fixed unit whose elements cannot be varied. Neither a red fish nor a reddish-colored herring can capture the meaning of the idiom a red herring. The meaning resides in the whole expression, and cannot be built up or extracted from its parts.

(end quote)
From *The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language,* 2nd ed., byDavid Crystal, Cambridge University Press, (C) 2003:

(quote, from page 163)
IDIOMS
Two central features identify an idiom. The meaning of the idiomatic expression cannot be deduced by examining the meanings of the constituent lexemes. And the expression is fixed, both grammatically and lexically. Thus, put a sock in it means 'stop talking', and it is not possible to replace any of the lexemes and retain the idiomatic meaning. Put a stocking in it or put a sock on it must be interpreted literally or not at all.
(end quote)
*The Oxford Companion to the English Language,* edited by Tom McArthur, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (C) 1992, under the entry "idiom," had by far the longest discussion of any of these books on the subject of the idiom.
(quote)An expression unique to a language, especially one whose sense is not predictable from the meanings and arrangement of the elements, such as kick the bucket a slang term meaning 'to die', which has nothing obvious to do with kicking or buckets. In linguistics, the term idiomaticity refers to the nature of idioms and the degree to which a usage can be regarded as idiomatic. Some expressions are more holophrastic and unanalysable than others: for example, to take steps is literal and non-idiomatic in The baby took her first steps, is idiomatic in The baby took her first steps, is figurative, grammatically open, and semi-idiomatic in They took some steps to put the matter right, and is fully idiomatic and grammatically closed in She took steps to see that was done.

These examples demonstrate a continuum of meaning and use that is true for many usages. No such continuum exists, however, between He kicked the bucket out of the way and He kicked the bucket last night (meaning 'He died last night'). Such idioms are particularly rigid: for example, they cannot usually be passivized (no (asterisk) The bucket was kicked ) or otherwise adapted (no (asterisk)bucket-kicking as a synonym for death ).
(end quote)
The author goes on to write about creative adaptations/creative wordplay, about which I have written in previous posts (a writer using "on the other paw" instead of "on the other hand" when writing about cats, for example). So there can be a limited amount of substitution to the words in an idiom. "Put a stocking in it" might be used as a sort of parody version of "Put a sock in it," under the appropriate circumstances.An aspect of idiom which is more important than I realized is the fixed nature of it. This supports my view that "couldn't care less" and "you have another think coming" are indeed idioms, which others have denied. "I couldn't care less" is an idiom because you cannot manipulate it and retain the same meaning. You can't, for example, say "less could not be cared by me." Similarly, in the case of "If that's what you think, then you've got another think coming," you cannot substitute "Another think is coming to you because you think what you do." You can, however, say for "The dog bit the man" that "The man was bitten by the dog." That's not an idiom.

A "man-bites-dog story," on the other hand, is very much an idiom It's not acceptable to refer to a "dog-is-bitten-by-a-man story."
So we should keep in mind, when discussing idioms, the fixed nature of such expressions. It is, ironically, this very fixed nature which permits "I couldn't care less" to become "I could care less" without any change in meaning, if the change was due to phonetics, or, alternatively, for an ironic "I could care less" to be changed to the straightforward "I could care less," with the meaning "I don't care at all," under the influence of "I couldn't care less," which had by then come to mean "I don't care at all." Similarly, it is because of the fixed nature of "You have another think coming" that "thing" could be substituted for "think" without the idiom suffering the slightest loss of meaning.

Raymond S. Wise
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
E-mail: mplsray @ yahoo . com
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Recently, we've been revisiting some old disputes in alt.english.usage concerning such idioms as "could care less"/"couldn't care less" and "you've got another think coming"/"you've got another thing coming."

Interesting post, and interesting excepts thank you for reproducing them here.
Idiom is, as your dictionary search has shown, an idiom itself in the strict sense of a mode of speech peculiar to a person or persons. There is widespread agreement on its /general/ meaning, but differences in individual usage, and differences between the meanings the word may assume in different contexts ... to the extent that one person's idiom may not be idiomatic English.
"Red herring" is an interesting example. I'd have been quicker to call it a metaphor than an idiom ... but in truth it is both. The NSOED tells me that a 'red' herring is a smoked herring, and further tells me that the idiomatic use of the phrase derives from the practice of drawing a red (smoked) herring across a trail to put dogs off the scent. Once you know that it is easy to see that the actual herring puts dogs off their track in the same way that the metaphorical herring put people off theirs. The meaning is clear from the words, once you know to what they refer (and that would be enough to lead some people to suggest that the metaphorical use is not an idiom).
You report /The Cambridge Guide to English/ making the point that neither "a red fish" nor "a reddish-colo(u)red herring" carries the same meaning, and I would agree ... there is a particular phrasing of the metaphor "red herring" that is idiomatic in English, and others won't do. We do, though, recognize other idiomatic phrases that relate to leading people "off the scent" in the same way as we recognize "red herring", so it is not true that one phrase and only one is idiomatic in this sense.

Incidentally: I have a friend, tends to speak more in wordplay than in plain English, who will occasionally refer to a "purple halibut" when others would say "red herring". It is always "purple halibut" never "green cod" or "taupe John Dory", for example and that is his personal idiom.
I have also heard "red herring" combined with "horse of a different colour" to describe a distraction or irrelevancy as a "fish of a different colour". The meaning is clear enough if you know the component phrases, but is certainly not so if you don't ... this is truly an idiom in the sense of a phrase "understood ... despite its meaning’s not being predictable from that of the separate words"!
People catch on pretty quickly, though.
... there can be a limited amount of substitution to the words in an idiom. "Put a stocking in it" might be used as a sort of parody version of "Put a sock in it," under the appropriate circumstances.

Absolutely!
"I couldn't care less" is an idiom because you cannot manipulate it and retain the same meaning. You can't, for example, say "less could not be cared by me."

You can't use that particular example because it doesn't sound like idiomatic English, any more than does: "The London train by me this morning will be caught".
You can change the wording, though: "I couldn't give a jot" (which is roughly synonymous, a jot being the smallest conceivable amount of something) works just as well, as does "I couldn't give a(n) X" where X is your expletive of choice. I'm sure I've also heard: "Any less, I could not care".
So we should keep in mind, when discussing idioms, the fixed nature of such expressions. It is, ironically, this very fixed nature which permits "I couldn't care less" to become "I could care less" without any change in meaning, ...

I take your point, but not in this particular case. There *IS* a change in meaning there ... for some of us, at least, "I could care less" really does mean "I do care".
It's obvious from context what is meant in cases like "Lets start by dividing the requests for new features from our customers into two piles: those we couldn't care less about and those we could" (which I found myself saying the other day) ... but one probably wouldn't put it that way in the first place if one's understanding of "could care less" was "don't care"
Similarly, it is because of the fixed nature of "You have another think coming" that "thing" could be substituted for "think" without the idiom suffering the slightest loss of meaning.

That I do agree with ... in fact I think you could say "another fish coming" and most people would understand you without stopping to think (or thing) about it.
Cheers,
Daniel.
Recently, we've been revisiting some old disputes in alt.english.usage concerning such idioms as "could care less"/"couldn't care less" and "you've ... I looked up the subject in three different books about the English language, from which I have excerpted the following:

()
Very nice post Raymond. If you do not write articles about usage you should.

Joanne
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Very nice post Raymond. If you do not write articles about usage you should.

Ray does indeed write articles about usage. Luckily for us, he posts them to the usage groups.

Liebs
Very nice post Raymond. If you do not write articles about usage youshould.

Ray does indeed write articles about usage. Luckily for us, he posts them to the usage groups. Liebs

Bob, you know I'm going to get on your case about this. A post is not considered an article which a publisher purchases from a contributor. Posts are viewed more as electronic conversations, regardless of the legal nuance you're going to cite back at me. Ray might earn something by looking at the textbook market, one area of publishing which I know little about. (My fiancé was just here looking at me typing, and I tried to explain about you and AEU and he went upstairs so I would stop talking...)

If poor Gary had modified one of my posts as opposed to one of my essays which is already copyrighted on the angrygimp web site, I would have been much less upset with him. My distinctions may not hold up under copyright law, but are valid from a business of writing standpoint. Editors would not normally care about my dialogue with you and even if I could pitch something about me the banshee, the lawyer, and fun with usage in Usenet, they would want a piece, not our posts from which that piece might be derived.
Joanne
who has to go upstairs with my soon to be husband
I didn't set out to do more research on "couldn't care less"/"could care less." I was at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore looking for the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary,* which Michael Quinion had cited as the source of a 1993 survey about the American pronunciation of "herb" ( a matter being discussed in another thread in alt.usage.english ). I did not find that book, but I came across the following: *Webster's New World American Idioms Handbook by Gail Brenner; Wiley Publishing, Inc.; (C) 2003. I decided that I might as well see how the book treated "couldn't care less"/"could care less."
The following is from the section "Idioms That Express Cold-Heartedness":
(quote, from page 175 (boldface type in the original ignored))

couldn't ( or could ) care less
to not care at all; to be indifferent or unfeeling I could care less is a common variation of I couldn't care less, and means the same thing. =B7 They couldn't care less about the employees. =B7 I could care less if he's dating someone. I have no feelings for him anymore.
(end quote)
This agreed with *Merriam-Webster Collegiate*'s definition of the idiom (under its entry for care). After reading the definition given in the book on idioms, I became curious to know how "I could care less" had been treated by the editors of the Oxford University Press. So I took a look at *The New Oxford American Dictionary,* 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, (C) 2005.
(quote, boldface ignored)
care
=B7 PHRASES I (or he, she etc.) couldn't (or informal also could ) care less informal used to express complete indifference: He couldn't care less about football.
(end quote)
I have never heard "could care less" used ironically in the wild, and I don't believe that meaning should be listed in any except the largest dictionaries, because it is so very obscure (if indeed it has ever gotten any actual use outside of theoretical discussions when comparing "could care less" to "couldn't care less." The definition "don't/doesn't care at all; am/are/is indifferent to" is the one which is most often used, and which should appear in every dictionary which lists that version of the idiom.
I would point out, disagreeing with the characterization of the idiom as expressing cold-heartedness, that "couldn't care less"/"could care less" can be used in a friendly manner, to indicate indifference but without criticism. (E.g.,"I could care less if you were married before. Please marry me.")

Raymond S. Wise
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA=20
E-mail: mplsray @ yahoo . com
Teachers: We supply a list of EFL job vacancies
(quote, boldface ignored) care · PHRASES I (or he, she etc.) couldn't (or informal also ... couldn't care less about football. (end quote) I have never heard "could care less" used ironically in the wild, ...

Did you misquote that? Was, perhaps, the first informal supposed to be ironic ?
My guess and it can only be a guess is (and has always been we've discussed this before) that "could care less" was originally only ironic, but that through overuse and misuderstanding it has lost its ironic note and come be used (in leftpondia, at least) as an equivalent of the "couldn't" form. Lacking a Tardis I am unable to research this further.

Then again, maybe I see irony where you do not.
Cheers,
Daniel.
(quote, boldface ignored) care =B7 PHRASES I (or ... never heard "could care less" used ironically in the wild,.=2E.

Did you misquote that? Was, perhaps, the first informal supposed tobe ironic ? My guess and ... form. Lacking a Tardis I am unable to research thisfurther. Then again, maybe I see irony where you do not.

I checked the definition again, and it was as I reported it although I had made one mistake: I should have put a comma between "she" and "etc."
I don't believe the hypothesis that "I could care less" started out as an ironic take-off on "I couldn't care less." The hypothesis I favor is that a combination of phonetics and semantics led to the transformation. Here's how I explained it in a previous post to alt.usage.english :
http://groups-beta.google.com/group/alt.usage.english/msg/5fe5df6ffe1f526f ?= dmode=3Dsource
(quote from Usenet post)I have long thought that "I could care less" came about when the "-n't" dropped out of "I couldn't care less," as a result of "-n't" (pronounced /@nt/ or /@n/, or with a syllabic /n/ in each case) tending to be misheard, as is the case when you find people asking "Did you just say 'can't' or 'can'?" (making sure they pronounce the words carefully when they ask the question). The negative polarity of "less" would allow "-n't" to drop out without it being noticed, since the resulting "I could care less" carries the exact same negative sense as "I couldn't care less" I know some believe that it does not do so, but that opinion just seems odd to me.

It's very much like the "ne" (pronounced /n/) falling out of "Je ne sais pas" it would simply be perverse to insist that "Je sais pas" or "Chais pas" don't mean "I don't know."
(end quote from Usenet post)
It's not that I think there could never have been any ironic usage of "I could care less," or that I believe the phenomena reported by meirman, involving a question form, never happened, but that I don't think those usages led to the transformation in question. I just seems to me to be too unlikely.
I don't see anything ironic in "I could care less," no. It's the version of the idiom I use myself, and it means, as does "I couldn't care less," "to be completely indifferent." It seems to me that any genuinely ironic use of "I could care less" would require a different intonation or word stress than that which is ordinarily used for the idiom.

Raymond S. Wise
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA=20
E-mail: mplsray @ yahoo . com
Recently, we've been revisiting some old disputes inalt.english.usage concerning such ... aboutthe English language, from which I have excerpted the following:

() Very nice post Raymond. If you do not write articles about usage youshould.

I appreciate the compliment, Joanne. I have no desire to be a professional writer, but I will say this: One thing that is good about writing posts for these newsgroups is that it keeps my writing skills in good shape, and that comes in handy sometimes.

Raymond S. Wise
Minneapolis, Minnesota USA
E-mail: mplsray @ yahoo . com
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