Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Basket Case

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 20, 2010

The term basket case usually refers to a person who is a nervous wreck.  It also refers to a country or organization as evidenced by a story run by the Los Angeles Times on September 23, 1994.  The headline read:

Haitian economy, infrastructure a basket case
Nation lacks everything, needs repair from ground up

However, back in 1971, due to the war for independence that Bangladesh waged against Pakistan, Bangladesh was labeled by an official in Henry Kissinger’s U.S. State Department as an “international basket case.”

A year earlier, in 1970, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was suffering from severely degraded ecosystems.  The U.S. National Park Service considered the park to be an “ecological basket case.”  Over the years, the damage was reversed but this does not negate the fact that 40 years ago, it was an “ecological basket case.”

Before that, it was a grim slang during World War I, referring to a person who is physically disabled in all four limbs because of paralysis or amputation.  This bulletin was issued by the U.S. Command on Public Information in March 28, 1919 on behalf of Major General M. W. Ireland, the U.S. Surgeon General and read in part:

The Surgeon General of the Army … denies … that there is any foundation for the stories that have been circulated … of the existence of ‘basket cases’ in our hospitals.

The Syracuse Herald newspaper carried the story in March 1919 and added the following explanation to its readers:

By ‘basket case’ is meant a soldier who has lost both arms and legs and therefore must be carried in a basket.

The term was retired after WWI and resurrected in WWII when a denial from the Surgeon General Major General Norman T. Kirk was issued in May 1944 which stated:

… there is nothing to rumors of so-called ‘basket cases’ — cases of men with both legs and both arms amputated.

It is therefore easy to see that until the latter quarter of the 20th century, the term basket case referred to quadriplegics whose catastrophic wounds were as a result of a battle in which they were involved. 

The term basket case in this instance has been around since about the American Civil War.  In fact, there are American museums who have wicker body baskets, circa 1870, now on display.  It is believable that these baskets were indeed the basket cases in question and that the term originated with these baskets as the following item dated November 6, 1875 in The Constitution newspaper published in Atlanta, Georgia contained this as part of the advertisement:  12 Stylish Basket Case Suits $14.

References to basket cases prior to this date could not be found by Idiomation.

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