"Underwater basket weaving” (or “basketweaving") is a joke college course that is known to be an easy grade and/or a worthless subject. Few colleges and universities teach basket weaving—and the subject matter is not at all easy.
The expression appears to have started in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “You might get a big bang out of a course in ballroom dancing or basket weaving, but that’s not going to be much help to a fellow who wants to be a lawyer or to a gal looking forward to a career as a stenographer” was cited in 1948. “"Underwater basket weaving’ as a way of saying that a certain course at school is a snap” was cited in print in 1952.
[This entry was assisted by research from Ben Zimmer and Bill Mullins of the American Dialect Society listserv—ed.]
Wikipedia: Underwater basket weaving
Underwater basket weaving is an idiom referring in a negative way to supposedly easy and/or worthless college or university courses, and used generally to refer to a perceived decline in educational standards. The term also serves as an intentionally humorous generic answer to questions about an academic degree. It is also used to humorously refer to any non-academic elective course, specifically one that does not count towards any graduation requirements.
Possible origin of the phrase
In weaving willow baskets, a trough of water is needed in which to soak the dried willow rods. They are then left to stand until pliable and ready to be used in weaving. The weaving is, however, not done under water. An issue of The American Philatelist from 1956 refers to an Alaskan village where “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 with their hands and raw materials completely submerged in water throughout the process of manufacture”.
1 March 1941, Yale Daily News (New Haven, CT), pg. 2, col. 2:
For it must be known that Cindy had spent so much time doing her roommates’ Basket Weaving that she had trouble with her own work.
(The context indicates that this is a synonym for Home Economics—ed.)
25 October 1943, Dallas (TX) Morning News, “Adventures of a Rookie in a Florida Camp” by PVT Henry McLemore, sec. 2, pg. 2:
Being a soldier now, I would like to ask those who contribute books to our libraries to break down once in a while and give a way a book that a normal person would like to read. Just because we are dogfaces doesn’t mean that we like to while away our leisure hours reading such gems as Little Women, Tramping Through the Andes with Mule and Family, Famous North Dakota Civil Trials, The History of the Steam Engine and The Art of Raffia Basket Weaving.
12 September 1948, Hartford (CT) Courant, “Tips for Teen-Agers” by SHeila John Daly, pg. E2, col. 3:
You might get a big bang out of a course in ballroom dancing or basket weaving, but that’s not going to be much help to a fellow who wants to be a lawyer or to a gal looking forward to a career as a stenographer.
18 July 1950, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Sportscripts” by Paul Zimmerman and Frank Finch, pg. C1:
Ned Cronin studying Hopi basketweaving at night school.
6 March 1952, Cedar Rapids (IA) Gazette, pg 13, col. 1:
Other slangy speech and patter which came as a surprise to our panel of experts were: “Moose” and “crocodile” as nicknames for an unpopular girl, “ample samples” making reference to a well-liked food, and “underwater basket weaving” as a way of saying that a certain course at school is a snap.
26 September 1952, Los Angeles (CA) Times, “Sports Parade,” pg. C1:
Ineligibility of Northwestern’s Dan Karchaturoff reminds me of the time some years ago when Illinois was having trouble with a star gridder. Somebody claimed he had been taking snap courses such as “Our Trees and How to Climb Them,” basket weaving, elementary canoeing, etc.
These New Zealanders
By Robin W. Winks
Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs
It is also quite true that some American universities offer courses in ‘Underwater Basket Weaving,’ ‘How to Putter About Efficiently’, and ‘Fly-casting’.
21 October 1958, Christian Science Monitor, “Big Green Coach Tempers Praise With Suggestions” by Phil Elderkin, pg. 10:
When Bob said yesterday that he thought other grid conferences were beginning to adopt some of the ideals of the Ivy League, he was striking a blow to those colleges which do not give money under the table, buy their players automobiles, or offer courses in basket weaving and pencil sharpening.
November 10, 1958
The Square Is Alive Again
A charming Rebel in cleats named Ravenel has won the hearts of all Cambridge and made Harvard football fun once more
As a sophomore, he has a course called Social Relations 105, which is a comparison of American and Russian economic and social systems, other courses in medieval history and American colonial history (history is his major), and a fourth course called Fine Arts 13.
“I know this sounds like basket-weaving,” he says. “Something a football player would take. But it isn’t. I really know nothing about art, and this is an introduction for me. It’s fascinating.”
OCLC WorldCat record
Underwater basketweaving : a reimbursable vocational trade?
Author: Ima Pfoul
Dissertation: Thesis (M.A.): California State University, San Bernardino, 1988.
Edition/Format: Thesis/dissertation : Thesis/dissertation : Fiction : Manuscript Archival Material : English
Underwater Basket Weaving: the real story
Cory Doctorow at 10:27 pm Mon, Jul 5, 2010
We’ve all heard “Underwater Basket Weaving” used as a synonym for easy, impractical college courses. Turns out that underwater basket weaving is challenging, rewarding, and offered by at least two American universities: UCSD, and Saint Joseph’s College Indiana. So whence the joke about UBW?
I would guess the origin of the term dates to the late 1950s. Did the joke start after a college actually began offering this course? I don’t know, but it seems possible.