More on “can’t be arsed/asked”

Some years ago I looked at the expression “can’t be arsed” (that is, can’t be bothered) and the way it has been (mis)construed, notably by Americans, as “can’t be asked.” A couple of developments since then. First, the OED moved its first citation for the expression to 1968 (from 1978, as I recall). In Hunter Davies’s 1968 book The Beatles, Paul McCartney is quoted as saying: “If they can’t be arsed waiting for me, I can’t be arsed going after them.” In the same book, John Lennon says, “I like ‘A Day in the Life,’ but it’s still not half as nice as I thought it was when we were doing it. I suppose we could have worked harder on it. But I couldn’t be arsed doing any more.”

Second, I found a very long, multi-year thread on the wordreference.com forum debating the merits of “can’t be arsed” and “can’t be asked.” I’ll spare you the details, except to say that one commenter found a 1979 article in which the American pianist Keith Jarrett was quoted as saying, “There are things now that I can’t be asked to do that maybe five years ago I would…” Now, that raises the question of whether Jarrett actually said “can’t be asked” or whether he said the British “can’t be arsed” and the interviewer mistakenly rendered it as “can’t be asked.” By a stroke of luck, that 1979 interviewer, Mikal Gilmore, is a Facebook friend of mine and I asked him if he remembered what Jarrett said. In a kind of Annie Hall-Marshall McLuhan moment, he responded quickly and definitively: “He said ‘asked.’”

I can understand why Jarrett and others would have made the change. First, most British people pronounce “arse” and “arsed” without voicing the “r,” so it sounds like they could be saying “asked.” Second, “can’t be asked” actually makes more sense than “can’t be arsed”—suggesting the idea that I won’t do something even if someone asks me to.

Perhaps for those reasons, “can’t be asked” apparently spread to the U.K. quite some time ago. A commenter on my original post said, “Working in and with South Londoners in the late 90s, I can confirm ‘can’t be asked’ as a thing, albeit pronounced ‘can’t be axed’. Actually more common at that time than arsed…”

And in 2007, someone posted a definition of “can’t be asked” on Urban Dictionary: “Used by some Southern UK speakers in place of ‘can’t be arsed’ because they misheard it, or want to be more polite.”

Helpfully dispelling any “arsed”/“asked” confusion is the version that has apparently become popular among young people on both sides of the Atlantic in their texting and commenting: the initialism “CBA.”

13 thoughts on “More on “can’t be arsed/asked”

  1. Reminds me of “Life, the Universe and Everything” – Wikipedia says… this book is the only one in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series to have been censored in its US edition. The word “asshole” is replaced with the word “kneebiter”, and the word “shit” is replaced with “swut”. See also “Belgium”.

  2. I’m an American who previously lived in and regularly visited in England. I’ve certainly heard the term “I can’t be arsed.” But I have never heard an American use the phrase “can’t be asked” without a subsequent word or words, like “can’t be asked to do” or “can’t be asked for.”

    1. Greg, I don’t think it’s very common–I haven’t heard it either. But it definitely seems to exist, for example in youthful gaming circles.

  3. I thought it was Australian for ‘I can’t even be bothered to get off my arse for this’. Ironically, for us the short version is CBF.

  4. Never heard “can’t be asked”, only “can’t be arsed”. The former sounds very unlikely as it doesn’t include a swear word, whereas “can’t be f**ked” is an acceptable alternative. The comment on South Londoners use of “axed” reflects the common pronunciation of “asked” as “arksed” by the large black community in that area.

    1. It used to be relatively rare here in the UK. I didn’t hear it until about 2000, when I was 43, and I remember exactly who said it to me: a friend of mine with a London background. The reason I remember is because it was so unfamiliar and odd-sounding. Nowadays I use it myself.

  5. Ben, will your book have a chapter on an American fightback against Britishisms? If so, keep an eye on this page: https://solitaired.com/phrazle

    I’ve done at least 50 of these puzzles; probably nearer 100, there are two per day. I’ve seen lots of folksy phrases described as North American when I look them up, and an absolute avoidance of British expressions; not one has appeared. Even Shakespeare’s hundreds of creations have been boycotted, so far.

  6. As an American near 60 with wide exposure to literature and media from the UK and commonwealth, I’ve experimented with “can’t be arsed” a few times a lark, but was met with confusion and soon gave up. As to Keith Jarrett, it sure seems to me that–rather than having substituted “asked” for “arsed” in the quote–he was saying that he had enough credit that people would now refrain from asking him to do things they would not have hesitated to demand before.

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