Lately, I've been reading the Michael Chabon books I'd not read previously. A few weeks ago, I read his first novel (The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, 1988), and right now I'm working my way through A Model World and Other Stories (1991). Fun to read a writer in his youth--seeing those flares of talent, that facility with words that emerges so rarely (and so mysteriously) and seems to be present in good writers from the very beginning.
Yesterday, reading the first story in the collection--"A Angel"--a tale about a young man at a wedding who sees a woman he doesn't know, finds her attractive, asks who she is, hears that he ought to avoid her ("She's a big mess"--25), goes to her anyway, talks, concludes: "She was a basket case" (26).
I had a dim memory of the source of that expression, looked it up, was horrified. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the phrase to 1919--from World I--and says: a quadruple amputee. A soldier so severely wounded that a stretcher was not necessary. I can think of few expressions more disturbing, more, well, wrenching than this one.
A few decades passed, and the expression--now softened--came to mean messed up or in terrible shape--an expression applied to both people and things (cars, countries, and just about whatever you want).
Just to see what would happen, I right now typed it into Google. There are assorted explanations of the phrase. There are links to a pop song with that title. A movie--more than one actually. One (2009) is a Finnish documentary about a basketball team. The earliest (1982) IMDb identifies as a horror-comedy film and offers this little grotesque summary: A young man carrying a big basket that contains his extremely deformed Siamese-twin brother seeks vengeance on the doctors who separated them against their will. Yuck. The "comedy" in that escapes me.
But, if you think about it, unpleasant words often drift over into everyday usage and adopt a more palatable and/or metaphorical meaning. An athletic team can slaughter or murder another one. We can get killed on our income taxes (reminder: It's April!). We can butcher an exam.
And so on.
Not all unpleasant words/phrases will make that transition, however, but I am not going to mention them. This post is already too troubling for my taste.
But I'll say this: After refreshing my memory about the source of basket case I'm pretty sure I will never again use that expression. I have no wish to have that image appear in my head, where, right now, I'm trying to lock it away where I never again will find it.