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The dark origin of "basket case"

It's jarring when you discover that a seemingly harmless everyday word or phrase has an offensive origin story.

The Oxford Dictionary's blog has a list of nine words with offensive origins. You probably already know about a few of these, but others such as "no can do" and "long time no see" may come as a surprise.

One that caught our eye is "basket case."

The first citation of "basket case" in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1919, soon after the end of World War I. It came from rumors about soldiers who had lost all of their limbs and had to be transported in a basket. 

Around the same time, there was some discussion about whether there actually were basket cases. This example appeared in The Boston Globe in 1919:  "Maj. Gen. [Merritte] Ireland, surgeon general to the Army, said today there was no foundation for widely circulated and persistent reports of basket cases in Army hospitals."

The use of "basket case" resurfaced during World War II with a very similar meaning. However, during this time we also start to see some extensions of the term.

In the mid-1940s, "basket case" is used to refer to an ineffective or powerless person. From there, it comes to refer to a country or an organization that's having severe economic difficulties. You can still find recent instances of this use.

Starting in the 1950s, a "basket case" could be a vehicle that has missing parts or is in disrepair. Around the same time, we start to see the use that most people are probably familiar with today, which is a person who is unable to cope for emotional reasons.

Did any of the words or phrases on the OED's list surprise you?


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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