Where does underwater basketweaving come from?
January 28, 2005 12:51 AM   Subscribe

At least since I was a kid, there's been the joke/expression "underwater basketweaving." Namely as a joke college major: "What's your major?" "Underwater basketweaving." What is the origin of this expression? Anyone know?
posted by zardoz to Education (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: thanks, b1tr0t. I should've checked out wikipedia, but never thought they'd have an entry.
posted by zardoz at 2:30 AM on January 28, 2005

Wait. Surely the Chico State page is a joke. I mean... it has to be. Right?

As for the origin of the expression, I always understood that "basketweaving" was synonymous not with "undecided" (as wiki suggests) but with "easy." The jokes would be something like, "Yeah, my grades really suck. I'm getting a D in basketweaving." It quickly became a cliche that the stupid people took basketweaving courses. And if they hung around for a year or two, then, the joke was, they'd progressed to underwater basketweaving, the advanced class.

I never thought there were any schools that actually offered basketweaving courses except maybe as part of one of those 'adult education', one-night-a-week-in-the-summer things. Of course, many a crack was made at the expense of Music Appreciation and I'm pretty sure that was actually taught somewhere in the known universe.
posted by Clay201 at 4:38 AM on January 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Like Clay201 said, I always thought it meant " Easy"...as in a course an athlete might take to keep his/her GPA up. Not to bash athletes...I is one.
posted by lobstah at 5:17 AM on January 28, 2005

The first time I heard mention of it (I think?) was in the movie, UHF. It was in the background on one of the program lineup cards. I have no idea if this is the origin, though UHF seems a bit obscure to propigate something so seemingly widespread.
posted by picea at 6:02 AM on January 28, 2005

Wait. Surely the Chico State page is a joke. I mean... it has to be. Right?

yes, it is a joke.

I'm sure basketweaving & even left-handed basketweaving are offered as courses at some fine institutions, but the random silliness of "underwater" signifies the "undecided" (or "who the hell knows?") aspect of the phrase. And, I don't know that there's any reason to imagine that basketweaving is especially easy. No doubt it does not require a strong intellect, but like any craft, I'd guess it does require a certain amount of practice/skill, so the 'easy' thing doesn't necessarily come through (I realize it's more of a joke about the intellectual capacities of those who would choose such a major, but just thought that worth pointing out...)
posted by mdn at 6:09 AM on January 28, 2005

I don't have time to search extensively, but I'm pretty sure this joke dates at least from the 40s or 50s and comes out of the world of state psychiatric hospitals. Basket weaving, sculpting, and fingerpainting were commonly included in treatment programs for developmentally disabled or brain-damaged patients. Handwork like this was intended as occupational therapy. A quote below from a former state hostpital employee:
This building is where the patients do their Occupational Therapy (OT). That would normally be the basket weaving, but when I was employed there, we had them making clay ash trays for some reason. Anyway, the whole point of the thing is to try to improve their coordination to the point where they're employable somewhere. The building also has an auditorium, where the patients watch movies every Friday afternoon. They also give job-related psychometric testing here and applicants to work at the Hospital are also tested here and lectured to about what all working at the nuthouse involves. It takes a whole day to apply for a job at the hospital.
So in other words, basketweaving was a learning program for the very limited mind.
posted by Miko at 6:10 AM on January 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

This definitely goes back to the early 50s at least - my mom used to joke about it. I couldn't find a derivation, but I did find this guy adding it to his list of things he couldn't find on the web.

basketweaving was a learning program for the very limited mind.

Right. And the addition of underwater adds a sort of humorous, what-class-will-they-come-up-with-next gloss to it.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:18 AM on January 28, 2005

Pics of mental patients weaving baskets in 1918-20 And associated Army history article. Yeah, that'll erase the memory of trench warfare in Europe.

Other trivia: Dr. Demento's song about mental hospitals includes a mention of basket weavers who sit and smile
And finally, apparently in Myanmar it's still cutting-edge therapy.
posted by Miko at 6:21 AM on January 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

I wonder if that's the origin of "basketcase"...
posted by mdn at 6:43 AM on January 28, 2005

You think weaving a basket underwater is easy? Damn.... just try it sometime.
posted by spilon at 7:17 AM on January 28, 2005

"Basket case is 1919, Amer.Eng., originally a literal reference to quadriplegic veterans of World War I. Fig. sense of "person emotionally unable to cope" is from 1967."
Online Etymology Dictionary
posted by jbrjake at 7:52 AM on January 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Haven't any of you ever tried to weave a basket? You have to keep the material wet--you soak it first to soften it. Otherwise, it would never be pliable enough to be shaped into a basket. When it dries, the basket gets tighter and holds its shape. So weavers often leave their material in a bowl of warm water to soak before they pick up a piece. Keeping the whole project submerged while working on it makes perfect sense! Offering it as a college course, though, is another question....
posted by equipoise at 8:11 AM on January 28, 2005 [2 favorites]

equipoise. Way to deconstruct the metaphor.

Seriously, that's really interesting.
posted by bingo at 8:14 AM on January 28, 2005

The term dates to at least 1958.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:51 AM on January 28, 2005

I'm with equipoise. I always figured the "underwater" part came from real basketweaving technique. Of course, for the sake of the joke, it helps that it sounds really goofy.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:07 AM on January 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

At the risk of over-explaining, the idea behind "underwater basket-weaving" is to come up with something even less useful than basket-weaving.
posted by kindall at 9:36 AM on January 28, 2005

The CSUC Underwater Basket Weaving Department also holds distance learning courses. You can attend many of our classes from the comfort of your own bathtub.
posted by probablysteve at 10:31 AM on January 28, 2005

Basket case, though, is of slightly different origin than basket weaver. I had always understood basket case to refer coldly to someone who had lost the use of their limbs, and thus had to be carried around in a basket. American Heritage dictionary bears that out:
In popular usage basket case refers to someone in a hopeless mental condition, but in origin it had a physical meaning. In the grim slang of the British army during World War I, it referred to a quadruple amputee. This is one of several expressions that first became popular in World War I, or that entered American army slang from British English at that time. Some of these words reflect technical inventions and innovations of the time, such as parachute, blimp, tank, and bomber, and still have clear military associations. Others have lost most or all of their military connotations, such as ace, chow, slacker, and dud.
It's easy to see how the two can be associated and confused together, since they have military and hospital origins in common.
posted by Miko at 11:12 AM on January 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

kindall, my point is that underwater basketweaving is the useful--in fact, maybe the only--kind of basketweaving. Of course, it does sound goofy, and I'm sure that's part of the point...but there's a reason that it's "underwater basketweaving" instead of "camelback basketweaving" or "underwater cuisinart usage."
posted by equipoise at 11:35 AM on January 28, 2005

Equipoise -- nitpicking alert -- in my experience (and I have a little bit...camp counselor, you know) when you're making baskets, you soak the materials first, then you soak the basket while in progress if you plan to leave it and pick it up again later, and then you soak the finished basket...but you don't weave it under water. You weave it in your hands in the air.
posted by Miko at 1:15 PM on January 28, 2005

For basketweaving they hold the reeds or whatever underwater. It's REAL.

This course was just picked out sometime as easy and sounded a little absurd. The name stuck.
posted by xammerboy at 1:36 PM on January 28, 2005

African killer spelling bees?
posted by esch at 5:11 PM on January 28, 2005

I tried to find information on this not too long ago, and came up pretty empty handed. Found a couple of the links listed above, and even had my girlfriend check the OED, but never found anything solid on where/when it came to be.
posted by borkencode at 10:59 PM on January 28, 2005

For basketweaving they hold the reeds or whatever underwater. It's REAL.

Merely holding the reeds under water doesn't qualify it as "underwater basketweaving."
posted by kindall at 11:08 PM on January 28, 2005

I always assumed it to be a reference to courses that held little to no relevance to the world outside of college.

Rita: Believe it or not, I studied 19th century French poetry.

Phil: [laughing] What a waste of time! — I mean for someone else that would be an incredible waste of time. It's so bold of you to even choose that. It's incredible. You must be a very, very strong person.
posted by tomble at 2:10 AM on January 29, 2005

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