Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ahhh, it’s Wednesday again. I am sitting here listening to my kids bicker over who has to take the recycling to the curb. It’s the same argument every week. It surpassed annoying 6 months ago and is now on the verge of nerve-wracking. I am becoming a basket case.

Guess what the phrase du jour is? If you guessed “basket case”, you are correct!!

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1919, American English, originally a reference to quadriplegics as a result of catastrophic wounds suffered in World War I (the military vehemently denied there were any such in its hospitals), from basket + case (n.2). Probably literal, i.e., stuck in a basket, but basket had colloquial connotations of poverty (begging) and helplessness long before this. Figurative sense of “person emotionally unable to cope” is from 1967.


  • Slang. One that is in a completely hopeless or useless condition: “He immediately becomes a psychological basket case, embittered to the point of craziness” (New York). “After World War I, when the Hapsburg empire was split up, little Austria seemed a basket case” (Paul A. Samuelson).
  • Offensive Slang. A person, especially a soldier, who has had all four limbs amputated.

Our Living Language   In popular usage basket case refers to someone in a hopeless mental condition, but in origin it had a physical meaning. In the grim slang of the British army during World War I, it referred to a quadruple amputee. This is one of several expressions that first became popular in World War I, or that entered American army slang from British English at that time.

And from

Now Means:
One that is in a completely hopeless or useless condition. As in, “The new supervisor got his dick caught in the copier again. What a basket case.”

Most say it came from ...
The supposed origin came about during World War I and was used to describe servicemen that had all of their limbs either surgically or explodingly removed–leaving them as nothing more then torsos that would have to be carried in a basket. Yes, like in that Metallica video.

So is that true? 
Again, it’s a yes and no answer. Yes, there were servicemen that went home sans all limbs during the World Wars, but only two documented cases and there were no reports of either of them being carried off in baskets of any kind.

Confusingly, the earliest recorded uses of the phrase were from US military statements claiming no such limbless soldiers existed. One way or another, it doesn’t seem like there were enough cases to create a whole phrase to describe them. Why have a term for something that doesn’t exist? Then again we have a word for “leprechaun” so, why not.

When I Googled the term “basket case” for images I did not come across any images of multiple amputees (thank God). Instead I found these:

Lyrics from the song Basket Case by Green Day.

A quilt pattern.

A game.

And a B-movie horror trilogy.

It’s safe to say I am not becoming a basket case in the literal sense. I would never in a million years have guessed the original meaning of the term. I’m not sure which is more disheartening; the image of a hero who has lost his limbs being carried about in a basket or the fact that our society has deemed those with mental health issues to be so incapacitated. Either way you look at it, it’s just sad.


About Holly

I hope you're able to glean something from this blog, a nugget of wisdom, a new perspective, a smile or even a laugh. I enjoy getting feedback so please comment, share your story with me too. After all, we're here to help each other.
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2 Responses to Wednesday, August 1, 2012

  1. Wow, I agree, Holly. This is a very depressing phrase of origin, and I hope to God that the reference wasn’t the truth. I haven’t used the term “basket case” much (luckily, haven’t had a reason to lately), but I wonder now if I’ll use it at all with the images it displays after reading up on this!

  2. Holly says:

    I know exactly how you feel! After reading the origin I’m haunted by the idea of poor, limbless heroes. I’m becoming much more conscious of the language I use. That’s probably a good thing. 🙂

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