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"Underwater basket weaving" is often used as a placeholder for "irrelevant, useless university course." (Despite the fact that it's an actual thing.)

More generally, "Basket weaving" and related courses (e.g. "quantitative basket weaving") are often used as a placeholder for "some university course."

This phrase appears several times on Academia.SE. It has also been used in official university documents (e.g., this sample curriculum change request, this sample assessment plan, this sample thesis title page, this guide to curriculum changes).

What is the origin of this usage? When/by who was it first used this way?

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    Note that the video you link to, showing a guy in SCUBA gear making a basket while submerged, is a joke. Underwater basket weaving is a real traditional craft, but normally only the basket is underwater, not the person doing the weaving! You hold the reeds in a bucket of water so that they remain wet and pliable during the weaving process. – Nate Eldredge Feb 9 '15 at 22:28
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    Some vaguely related reading - the CS side of StackExchange have a "boat programming" meme. – Moriarty Feb 9 '15 at 23:17
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    In Taiwan, we call it "Nutrition credit" because they are often counted into your GPA. I don't know its origin, though. – scaaahu Feb 10 '15 at 7:28
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    meme? there is even a course in Coursera! youtube.com/watch?v=l1Vvyu99GxA – Ander Biguri Feb 10 '15 at 11:12
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    I seem to have arrived in the weird part of AcSE. – Compass Feb 10 '15 at 15:15
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The earliest reference known to Wikipedia (as shared by jakebeal) is from 1956, but I found a few that were earlier.

First, perhaps a hint as to how this usage evolved, here's a mildly sarcastic 1919 reference about universities that have abandoned the ways of the Ivory Tower to offer such "practical" courses as plumbing and basket weaving (which presumably was a useful vocational skill in those days):

Higher education is becoming very practical indeed. It includes everything nowadays - excepting, of course, Greek and Latin - from plumbing to basket-weaving.

Source: "Studying National Parks," The watchman and southron. (Sumter, S.C.), August 06, 1919. link

The earliest usage I found that was specifically for "underwater basket weaving" is from 1953. It's in an article about slang used by the "younger generation" (implying that the usage is new, or at least new again):

Any snap course in school is "underwater basket weaving."

Source: "In a Hepster's Lingo, the Girl Who Likes to Neck is a Giraffe," Boston Globe, Oct 4, 1953, pg. A50

Throughout the 1950s, there are many references to "basket weaving" in the context of easy courses taken by student athletes.

Here's one such reference from 1952:

These may include courses in life-insurance salesmanship, bee culture, square-dancing, traffic direction, first aid, or basketweaving.

Source: "Magna cum nonsense," New York Times, March 16, 1952, SM68.

Here's a reference in a quote from one of these athletes, from 1953:

A varsity baseball player said he had received offers from San Francisco University guaranteeing him passing grades.

"I hardly would have had to go to classes," he said. "They told me I could major in basket weaving if I wanted to."

Source: "Other Schools Made Bids, Spartan Athletes Content," Newsday, March 3, 1953, pg. 50

The 1956 reference with "underwater basket weaving" that Wikipedia cites:

Why should he be given a better deal than those students who are attending college in order to get a "real" education ... majoring in underwater basket weaving, or the preparation and serving of smorgasbord, or particularly at Berkeley, the combined course of anatomy and panty-raiding?

Source: "College 'Pro' Football Hit," Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1956, pg A4

There's also many about plain "basket weaving" that year. For example:

Several schools screamed to high heaven about the fact that these so-called students, or at least the majority of them, couldn't pass the basket weaving examination and that their grade transcripts resembled those of the village idiot.

Source: "Cronin's Corner," Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1956, pg. B3

and

It was explained rather superciliously that they had a stiff struggle to get minimum passing grades in basket-weaving, musical appreciation or Loaf and Sleep (Letters and Science) courses.

Source: "Sports of the World," Atlanta Daily World, Nov 13, 1956, pg 5


I found these by searching ProQuest databases, the results unfortunately don't seem to include permanent links. Hence the lack of links.

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    This is awesome. Perhaps you should update the Wikipedia page as well? – jakebeal Feb 10 '15 at 13:55
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    Minor update, I found a couple of slightly earlier references, similarly mocking, from 1952, using Google Books: Ladies Home Journal and American Swedish Monthly .... – iayork Nov 27 '15 at 18:40
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    ... and also a surprisingly serious-seeming reference in a 1956 American Philatelist: "Underwater basket weaving is the principal industry of the employables among the 94 Eskimos here. By way of explanation—the native reeds used in this form of basketry are soaked in water and the weavers create their handiwork ... " – iayork Nov 27 '15 at 18:41
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The best history of the phrase that I know of is the one given in Wikipedia, which traces it to a letter in the LA Times in 1956. Whether that's actually the ultimate origin or not, I don't know if anybody has actually tried to track down further...

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    "I don't know if anybody has actually tried to track down further..." I took that as a challenge :) – ff524 Feb 10 '15 at 7:13

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