The following is a passage from an article on the origin of the idiom basket case:

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.

"other soldiers dubbed them "basket cases" in reference to the fact that they would have to be carried around by others." I know what a basket is, but what is the case of basket case? All I could think of a case is those container or covering used to protect or store things, but wouldn't make sense that both basket and case go together?

  • Try definition #9 at OALD Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 2:22
  • @StoneyB I think definition #1 is more suitable, since it isn't a case of basket like we'd say a case of the flu.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 2:51
  • 2
    @choster, It is a "medical case" (due to injury) that results in somebody needing to be carried around in a basket. Also, in the medical sense, case generally refers to the patient not the disease. For example, "An interesting case: she has both the flu and a broken leg."
    – The Photon
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 3:00
  • I see basket case as analogous to charity case , closet case, hardship case, textbook case, or nutcase. So maybe my dispute is really with Oxford.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 3:03
  • @choster, I think it's fair to say the medical field is just an example of where case is so commonly used with the meaning "example" or "situation" that the dictionaries have called this out as a distinct definition.
    – The Photon
    Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 3:29

3 Answers 3


Oxford suggests a few that this meets in the overlap at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/case but the most directly applicable is:

a person or their particular problem requiring or receiving medical or welfare attention.

Specifically the person here, rather than the problem. Just as they could be referred to as a "quadruple amputation case", using the definition of case above, so too could they be referred to as a "basket case" by taking the same use of case, and applying the basket they are alleged to be carried in to it. (I say "alleged" because the first such use on record is the Surgeon General denying there were any such cases).

It's not the only suggested etymology; it's also been suggested that it comes from the practice of having inmates in asylums (as they were then) weave baskets. Since "basket case" seems to refer to mental rather than physical affliction in some regions, it's quite possible that both etymologies are true and that the two terms originated independently with those different meanings, before merging particularly in figurative use.


A case can be defined as a situation or scenario. This is similar to how one would describe a person to have a case of some illness ("This seems to be a case of the flu") or even a police case.

In this scenario, the person is suffering a case of serious dismemberment (loss of limbs). Due to this, they need to be carried around in a basket or similar. As such, soldiers came to use "basket case" to describe the scenario (A case [situation] in which the soldier must be carried in a basket).

Similarly, basket case (and nut case) can be used to describe someone who is crazy or in some other way not mentally sound.

Edit: As noted in comments, OALD defines case as:

1) A particular situation or a situation of a particular type


9) The fact of somebody having a disease or an injury; a person suffering from a disease or an injury

10) A person who needs, or is thought to need, special treatment or attention

All of which relate.


Check [OALD] which states a basket case person to be the one

who has problems dealing with situations.

So the soldiers gave a nickname to (dubbed) their injured peers as 'basket cases' similar to nutcases.

  • This doesn't answer the question, which was specifically about the word "case" in "basket case". Commented Nov 21, 2013 at 12:35

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