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What Is a "Basket Case"?

Jim B.
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Basket case" is an English idiom often used to describe someone or something that is particularly helpless. Although it was originally associated with a physical connotation, the phrase has expanded in use to define anyone who is in a precarious mental state. In addition, the phrase can be applied to organizations or groups that have been rendered helpless or powerless by circumstances. The origin of the phrase "basket case" dates back to World War I, when it was used to describe soldiers who had both their arms and legs amputated due to battle injuries.

There are times when the words spoken or written by someone take on a meaning that is somewhat exaggerated or only thinly associated with their literal definitions. When a certain phrase takes on a new cultural meaning through popular usage, it is known as an idiom. Idioms can be used to describe many aspects of life, and they allow speakers or writers to be descriptive and colorful. "Basket case" is an extremely common and particularly resonant idiom.

The origins of this idiom are somewhat grisly. In World War I, there were cases reported which involved soldiers who lost both their arms and legs in battle. Any soldier in such a condition would be especially helpless, and other soldiers dubbed them "basket cases" in reference to the fact that they would have to be carried around by others. As such, the original origins of the phrase caused it to invoke physical helplessness.

With the passage of time, the phrase "basket case" has begun to be used more in association with someone suffering some mental debilitation. The phrase can be used for someone who is extremely nervous. It can also be used for more extreme cases involving someone having a complete mental breakdown. As an example, someone might say, "She can't even function right now because she's so worked up; she's a complete basket case."

In addition to this popular meaning, the phrase can also be used to describe anyone or anything that ceases to function at an effective level. Using it in this way can allow descriptions of people or businesses or even whole countries. As an example of how this usage works, consider the sentence, "Right now, that political party is a hopeless basket case, and it needs something drastic to turn it around." The implication here is that the political party in question is struggling mightily and is helpless to remedy the situation.

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Jim B.
By Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own successful blog. His passion led to a popular book series, which has gained the attention of fans worldwide. With a background in journalism, Beviglia brings his love for storytelling to his writing career where he engages readers with his unique insights.
Discussion Comments
By DylanB — On Jul 29, 2012

@StarJo – It's never good when someone who has authority over you is a basket case. My babysitter used to frighten me with her erratic behavior, and she was the very definition of basket case, in my opinion.

She would act totally normal until my parents left. Then, she would start torturing me. At first, it was nothing more than incessant tickling, but then, it progressed to poking me with needles and shoving me down the steps.

She would laugh maniacally while doing this, but later on, she would break down in tears and apologize. When I told my parents, they didn't believe me. They just thought I wanted an excuse to stay by myself, so I had to endure this torture until I was actually old enough to stay alone while they went out.

By Kristee — On Jul 29, 2012

I work at a newspaper, and every year in December, we receive several unique gift baskets from surrounding businesses. We put them in the break room in a giant bin that we have nicknamed “the basket case.”

We like the play on words, and we enjoy the snickering from guests as they bring in the baskets and we tell them to put them in the break room inside the basket case. I even drew some crazy looking faces on it with markers in my spare time to make the joke funnier.

I love that we all get along well enough at work to enjoy little jokes like this. Luckily, we don't have any real basket cases in the office, so everyone gets along!

By StarJo — On Jul 28, 2012

My coworkers used to call our supervisor a basket case all the time. She never experienced a nervous breakdown, but her personality would change from moment to moment, and she really did seem to be crazy.

You never knew whether she would greet you with a smile and commend you on your good work or bite your head off for making a simple error. She once screamed at a guy for drinking coffee at his desk, but that afternoon, she sat hers down right next to his computer while talking to him.

We found out later that she was on medication that was affecting her behavior. The boss eventually fired her because she scared some clients.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 27, 2012

I've usually seen this idiom written as the single word “basketcase,” but I suppose that both forms are used. Considering the origin of the phrase, it does seem like “basket case” would make more sense.

Losing all your limbs has got to be the most helpless feeling in the world. If someone else doesn't help you out, you could actually starve or thirst to death.

I wonder if wheelchairs had even been invented back when this phrase was coined? It does seem a bit odd that anyone would be carried around in a basket.

Jim B.
Jim B.
Freelance writer - Jim Beviglia has made a name for himself by writing for national publications and creating his own...
Learn more
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