"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.