It is not uncommon for a grisly or shocking term to lose its impact over the years, to meliorate. Such is the situation with basket case. As the term is commonly used today, a basket case is someone who is under physical or, more usually, mental distress to the point where they can no longer function. It is also used to refer refers to a dysfunctional organization or situation. But the origins of the term are much more grim and rooted in the horrors of the First World War, or as we shall see, rooted in something of an urban legend that arose from that war.
As originally used, basket case denoted a quadruple amputee. With no arms or legs, the soldier was reduced to being carried around in and living life in a basket. The idea of basket cases arose despite the fact that apparently few, if any, soldiers in such a condition actually existed. From the Official U.S. Bulletin of 28 March 1919:
The Surgeon General of the Army, Maj. Gen. Meritte W. Ireland, 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. A basket case is a soldier who has lost both legs and both arms and therefore can not be carried on a stretcher.
But grim stories like this do not die, even if they’re not true, and during the next war the Army’s surgeon general had to reissue the denial. In its 12 May 1944 issue, Yank magazine reported:
Maj. Gen. Norman T. Kirk, Surgeon General, says there is nothing to rumors of so-called “basket cases”—cases of men with both legs and both arms amputated.
Gradually, as memories of the world wars faded, basket case lost its tinge of horror and the figurative sense arose. By the early 1950s, psychological factors could make one a basket case. And in the following decade it was extended to politics. On 25 March 1967, the Saturday Review said of the Ghanaian President who had been deposed in a coup the previous year:
Kwame Nkrumah should not be written off as a political basket case.
(The magazine was wrong; Nkrumah spent his remaining years in exile.)
“basket, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton