Basket case

Well, that explains the guards at the Longaberger factory.

Dear Word Detective: Recently a dear friend of mine was going through a romantic breakup, and was suffering most pitifully. It occurred to me that she was a basket case. Then it occurred to me to wonder where the heck the term “basket case” comes from anyway. I used to think it was based on the practice of encouraging patients in mental hospitals to participate in craft activities such as basket weaving. Actually, I have no idea whether mental patients are actually expected to do weave baskets. I used to have a friend who remarked to me that his son always thought that prisoners in the penitentiary making license plates was just an urban legend or movie device until he got sent to one. Apparently prisoners really do make license plates! So do mental patients really weave baskets? And if so, can I take a basket-weaving class without being in danger of running afoul of Nurse Ratched? But I digress. If the term doesn’t refer to that, to what does it refer? Is it someone who’s so fallen apart he must be carried about in a basket? I must say, I think my explanation’s more interesting. Or is there an even better explanation out there? Pray enlighten me, pretty please. — Chris.

My, what a long question. Not that I’m complaining; it was fun to read. I don’t have any direct experience of mental hospitals myself (yet), but I suspect that basket weaving therapy, if it ever existed, has been replaced by something a bit more lucrative for Big Pharma. As for license plates and penitentiaries, I believe the subject was definitively covered by John Hiatt in his classic song Tennessee Plates, available on YouTube (watch a version with Sonny Landreth on slide guitar for maximum awesomeness).

In addition to the theory about “basket case” being rooted in basket-making as therapy for severely debilitated mental patients, another popular explanation traces the term to victims violently dismembered in auto accidents (requiring rescue workers to gather them up in baskets). A third theory popular on the internet traces the phrase to the baskets used as receptacles at the foot of guillotines during the French revolution. The truth, unfortunately, is just as grisly as the latter two stories.

“Basket case” first appeared in the slang of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) fighting in Europe during World War I. It was widely rumored among the soldiers that some casualties had lost all four limbs and had to be transported in “baskets” lest they roll off a standard stretcher. Given the horrific nature of combat in this conflict (the AEF alone suffered 320,000 casualties), the stories of “basket cases” were entirely plausible, but the US War Department vigorously denied that there was a single such case known to them. A 1919 US government press release cited by lexicographer Paul Dickson in his book War Slang (1994) states emphatically that “The Surgeon General of the Army … denies emphatically that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated in all parts of the country of the existence of basket cases in our hospitals.” But the rumors persisted, of course, and the idea of the “basket case” was further spread in 1939 by Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar novel “Johnny Got His Gun,” which focused on just such a case. A similar rumor of “basket cases” made the rounds during World War II and was denied with equal vigor by the US government.

Whether or not such “basket cases” actually existed in either war (and strongly I suspect that they did), by the 1960s “basket case” was being used almost exclusively in its modern figurative sense to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “One who is emotionally or mentally unable to cope; something that is no longer functional, especially a country that is unable to pay its debts or to feed its people” (“The real basket cases of European agriculture are the Italians and the Bavarians,” 1973).

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