The case for basket cases and other offenses
by Mellissa Martinez
Last week, my new friend David offered a gruesome explanation for the origin of ‘basket case.’ I looked at him skeptically as he outlined a grim story of quadriplegics in the early 20th century forced to live in baskets. The tale seemed oddly too precise to be true, so I assumed that it was a case of folk etymology.
The Oxford English Dictionary, however, corroborates his story, stating that the expression was first recorded in 1919 as a reference to those who had suffered catastrophic wounds in war and had to be carried to the hospital in a basket. After WWI, the US Surgeon General officially denied the existence of ‘basket cases,’ but in 1934, the Washington Post wrote that ‘basket cases’ were causing confusion in the hospitals as the patients were losing identification tags. This spurred a second denial from the Surgeon General, who again vehemently denied the circulating stories regarding such men.
The irony of the idiom lies in the fact that it was likely made popular through denial of the condition rather than the existence of it. In 1945, Time magazine did its own investigation and was able to track down only two men who had suffered this miserable fate.
Many believe that the phrase could not possibly have been popularized solely from these two cases, but rather from its persistent use in written denials. This has happened with other phrases, such as ‘pink elephant.’ It was the use of the compound, not the existence of the creature, that made the expression notable.
In the late 1940s, ‘basket case’ began to take on a variety of metaphorical meanings. It came to refer to a car in a state of disrepair because of missing parts; an ineffective or powerless person or organization in severe economic or financial crisis; and a person emotionally unable to cope with stress and anxiety.
I confess to having used ‘basket case’ to describe myself (and maybe others) in stressful situations. Has my flippant use of the phrase been an offense to some? Perhaps. Some people are still put off by the idiom’s association with quadriplegics and specifically, the archaic connotation that a person without limbs is worthless.
In an online response to an article in The Guardian, one commenter wrote, “I think the paper should avoid the use of basket case. It is a shocking, distressing, and distracting image. The Guardian would not use spastic or quadriplegic as derogatives. Why use basket case?”
Although I’m guilty of accepting ‘basket case’ into my lexicon without vetting the provenance, I also understand that words and phrases change meaning over time and, in some cases, lose all traces of whence they came.
Most of us do not conjure gory wartime images when saying ‘dodge a bullet,’ ‘ride shotgun,’ ‘cross swords,’ ‘fight an uphill battle,’ ‘open old wounds’ or ‘bite the bullet.’ These expressions, which were born of distress, have significantly lost their power to shock.
My ignorance about ‘basket case,’ however, begs the question, how many other potentially offensive phrases have I been using? As it turns out, there are several. I often accuse my children of ‘running amok.’ Little did I know that this expression comes from the Malay amuk meaning ‘attack furiously on the streets and brutally kill as many people as possible.’ Even on the most chaotic mornings, my kids aren’t that bad!
‘Deadline,’ a word I use every day, comes from the 1800s. It originally referred to the line drawn around a military prison, beyond which the prisoner would be shot down. The practice of ‘raking over the coals’ was literally the torture for non-Christians offered by well-meaning people of the cloth, and a ‘diehard’ is one who has died reluctantly from a hanging...with a struggle. I confess to using all of these expressions freely with little concern to their appalling pasts.
The famous wordsmith Ambrose Bierce once said that “to apologize is to lay the foundation for a future offense” so, with this in mind, I will refrain from apology. Rather, I will make a case for ‘basket case,’ ‘deadline,’ ‘diehard’ and others. It is time to let bygones be bygones and accept that that some offenses are clearly a thing of the past.