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Two hoots

Q From Peter Evans, Australia: I wonder if you could tell me the origin of I couldn’t give two hoots meaning “I couldn’t care less”. It is an expression that was used widely when I was a boy (a long while ago) in Australia though I don’t hear it used much these days. I was told that it was an old expression based on the old British word for the hoot of an owl. If so, why two hoots? Is it English or is it a more recent Australian and New Zealand idiom? A theory I’ve heard is that the word came from Maori utu meaning a small amount of money.

A I like the theory about the Maori origin, even though it’s quite wrong. There’s nothing Australasian about it at all but the phrase isn’t British either. The evidence shows it’s from the US.

A hoot in this slangy sense is the tiniest little bit of something, a whit or jot. To care not even that much shows just how little you really do care about some matter. The original form — which started to appear in the 1870s — had just the one hoot, but it got doubled up later for dramatic effect, around the time that it started to be elaborated into phrases like I don’t care a hoot in hell! My first example of the dual hoot is this:

New Russian doesn’t give two hoots for a warm water port or for the state of the southern Slavs; he considers himself a citizen of nothing less than the world

The headline (no need to read the story) over an article by Charles Edward Russell in the Sheboygan Journal of Wisconsin, 24 Aug 1917.

It might refer specifically to the hoot of an owl but some examples suggest it’s more general than that, most likely harking back to two senses known in the seventeenth century: either a loud cry or a shout of disapproval (as in hoots of derision). The owl hoot was taken from the human cry and doesn’t appear until near the end of the eighteenth century; the slang sense of an amusing situation or person (“your mother’s a real hoot!”) is of the early 1920s.

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Page created 11 Jul 2009