Amanda Hess writes on contemporary can’t-even-ing:
For those who grew up when teenagers didn’t “can’t,” the phrase might register as a whimper, as if millennials have spun their inability to climb the staircase out of the parental basement into a mantra. At least the Valley Girls of the 1980s and ’90s, who turned every statement into a question, and the vocal-fried pop tarts of the early 2000s, who growled almost inaudibly, had the decency to finish their sentences. Kids today, it seems, are so mindless that they can’t even complete their verb phrases.
But if you really believe that teenage girls (and boys) don’t know what they’re talking about, it’s more likely that they just don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny.
Hess’s history of the phrase is interesting, but her explanation of its purpose — to shield its meaning from parents — is completely inaccurate.
As obfuscation goes, can’t even ranks as a fairly transparent colloquialism. I can’t even [believe it], I can’t even [comprehend that] — these are not profoundly difficult exclamations to decipher. A parent that’s unable to do so might benefit from laying off the Strunk & White.
The notion also reveals the self-importance of many parents. I concealed fairly little from my parents, and know many who did the same. It wasn’t because we were particularly virtuous; rather it was because parents — bless them — are largely oblivious to their children’s actual lives, and so we didn’t need to.
Hess portrays the neurotic parent who faithfully spies on their children, but as everyone suspects the kids always come out ahead.