Underwater Basket Weaving: the real story

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?
The earliest reference to the term that I could find, searching on Newspaper Archive, was May 9, 1960. The author of a Pasadena Independent trivia column noted that "Son Herbert reports that underwater basket weaving is all the rage among college students who want to spare the brain cells." So evidently the joke had been well established by 1960. 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.
Underwater Basket Weaving (via Making Light)

(Image: Soaking_reeds_for_basket_weaving.gif, Wikimedia Commons/Charlotte Coats)


  1. So bizarre. My friends and I used to joke about this in the late 80’s-early 90’s. But I would swear we spontaneously made it up.

  2. In college I was at a table in our cafeteria with a group of fellow history majors. We were kvetching about our reading loads as compared to the other majors. The usual jokes about communications majors being forced to read a newspaper every day or the theater majors having to read the whole playbill were getting tossed around. Someone mentioned “underwater basket weaving” and we were all having a good laugh when a woman from an adjoining table stood up and began screaming at us.


    She then stormed out of the cafeteria leaving us in stunned silence.

    1. I sympathize with her – crafts work is very different from academic work, but as all the makers around here can attest, it’s still challenging.

      I went to Algonquin College, a sort of “University of Community Colleges” – the place is enormous, and offers everything from 3-year computer science associates degrees to flower arranging recreational courses to machinists and carpenters and mechanics trade training to photonics (!) I did Comp Sci, but when you’re bouncing around the same campus as the tradesmen every day you learn that they’re working pretty hard too.

      Comp Sci still had it hands down with 40 hours of lecture and lab work, and then 30-40 hours of homework every week – but that’s just *more* work not *better* work.

  3. As a keen SCUBA diver and amateur weaver, I’ve never thought about combining the two. Until now.

  4. This reminds me of something I heard in meetings while working in the publishing industry in Australia. The generic placeholder name for one of the many tiny fringe interest magazines was always “Underwater Knitting”, sometimes “Underwater Knitting For Dwarves” if they were feeling particularly sarcastic.

  5. Baleen whale baskets must be made underwater to keep the baleen pliable, thus underwater basket weaving is pretty normal technique for this type of basket making. And indeed many types of traditional baskets need water soaking to keep the material pliable – for example if one is weaving with cedar bark the bark must be soaked before using to keep it pliable as well. All of this is relatively traditional types of basket weaving in Alaska, well the baleen basket weaving is not traditional – it was introduced by whalers to Alaskan native cultures by gusuks.

    To me to think that underwater basket weaving is odd or referential of something that is without merit is merely the absence of knowledge or familiarity with the truth of the skills and techniques needed to be a master basket weaver. In other words it shows one’s ignorance to refer to an art in this manner.

    – Ethel

  6. My friends and I always joked about “underwater basket weaving” not as an easy course but as a useless course – like you are going to learn something esoteric and random (like a lot of specific college courses) but there is little real world use for it (like a lot of college courses).

  7. The way I always heard the joke, it wasn’t about taking a course in basket-weaving, it was about /majoring/ in it.

  8. I went to UCSD and Underwater Basket Weaving is offered, but as the article said, it’s a recreation course, not an academic course – you get 1/2 of a credit for it (or that’s what it was then, regular classes were, I think, 3 credits) the same as taking tennis or yoga.

    UCSD is also the home of inner-tube water polo!

    1. UCSD is also the home of inner-tube water polo!

      Finally! Regular water polo is just so cruel to the horses.

  9. I attended Hampshire College in Amherst, MA in the late 70s & early 80s. At the time me and my fellow undergrads had all heard the legend of an earlier Hampshire graduate who had apparently gotten some national press for successfully defending his Division 3 dissertation studying underwater basket weaving. As the story went, scientists onboard North Sea oil wells at the time trained divers to weave precise basket patterns in a set period of time. During long dives, when they could no longer do this pattern/tempo (monitored via remote video cameras) then it was time for them to stop working. I vaguely recall one of my professors explaining how the dissertation was a justifiable scientific/medical study.

  10. The humor comes from the fact that hearing the phrase makes one imagine people weaving baskets at the bottom of a pool, but in actuality, they just submerge the basket-making materials in a vessel.

  11. I was an art major and I’ve heard all the jokes regarding “easy” classes. If anyone thinks an art or craft class is “easy”, I challenge you to take any “real” art class, that is Drawing, or Painting or whatever it is as long as it isn’t your school’s “Art for non-majors” class. Oh and take 18 credits of Art history while you’re at it and then make jokes about an art major’s lack of academic rigor.

    1. YUP, never worked so hard and long as when I started my Art and Design classes, reading a book is a lot easier, believe me….

      Just learning about basket weaving, just moved to hawaii and want to use all of these natural huge leaves around me to good purpose, and yes there is an ocean near by, and yes one needs to soak the materials it seems, I’m sure it makes total sense in reality, and as a joke about ‘easy’ classes for athletes…har har, let’s not lose our sense of humor here, but I look forward to swimming AND weaving now that y’all have brought it up, hadn’t thought of submerging myself with the materials, but hey, why not? Oh this Universe is so humorous and full, yes?

  12. We used the expression in the late ’60s in college, especially while taking tough science courses with a lab. It was the ultimate “gut” course that we could imagine. Tough courses in rural Vermont winters caused us to dream of somewhere warm where both the living and the academics were unchallenging. Students used to be really creative in selecting Tues-Wed-Thurs classes that would enable long weekends and some (me too) bailed from the sciences for “easier” majors.

    Decades later I re-caned several antique chairs and yes, you have to soak the cane in water to make it pliable to be able to work it and have the finished tension be correct.

  13. Underwater basket weaving was always paired with sky diving where/when I went to university. The courses were imagined to be part of the curriculum for the Leisure Studies major that some of the engineering dropouts migrated to. The terms were meant to be demeaning. High humor, right up there with the joke that the majority of the females on campus were there to get their MRS.

  14. I remember joking about it in boy scouts as if it was a merit badge. I always pictured the person weaving the basket underwater, not just their hands.

    1. Big ol’ Me Too here. I went to community college in San Diego, so maybe I’d heard of it from people who’d heard of the UCSD course, but in my circles it was always used as a gag denoting an unserious, unrigorous, goofy or otherwise valueless course. And not because it was necessarily *basketweaving* or a craft in general; the comedic assumption was that the basketweaver was learning how to weave while completely underwater. Snorkel and mask at minimum, full-on SCUBA for more yuks.

  15. I remember being terribly disappointed when I came to understand for the first time that underwater basket weaving did not involve scuba gear.

    It went from being a ridiculous funny image to being a totally normal craft technique.

  16. I remember reading this in Mad Magazine years ago. I thought it was a joke. I’ve been using Mad’s “Underwater Basker Weaving and Medieval Plumbing” punchline for two decades!

    1. Medieval Plumbing? They still do that in England. Speaking as an American plumber, I find English plumbing entrancingly baroque and refreshingly free of post-Runnymede innovation. It always reminds me of neckties, sidesaddles and french cuffs.

      My family has gotten tired of it, though. “Honey, come look at this bathroom! It has the sewage pipe going uphill!”

  17. Anyone interested in the earliest printed uses of slang terms or otherwise interesting turns of phrase in American English should take a look a the archives of the email list of the American Dialect Society:

    Searching for “underwater basket” there reveals that Sam Clements found a 1956 cite for the phrase five years ago.

    Apparently I have better Newspaperarchive-fu than the original museumofhoaxes poster; I found:

    _Cedar Rapids [IA] Gazette_, 3/6/1952, p 13

    “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.”

  18. My high school Latin teacher, George H.R. Bertsch, frequently used the term “underwater basket weaving,” often adding “over-the-head finger-twirling,” at Miami Edison High School in the late 1950s, to refer to such useless or undemanding courses, or other activities (such as school-required pep rallies) that wastes of time. To celebrate him, several of us actually wove a basket underwater and presented it to him in class one day.

  19. This is the first time I have ever seen the term. We knew them as “Mickey Mouse” courses.

    IIRC, the phrase “gut courses” may also have sarcastically referred to such courses.

  20. My father (who went to college in the 60s) always used the phrase “underwater BB stacking,” which, to me, always seemed much more of a pointless pursuit, especially after having unsuccessfully tried dry BB stacking. Perhaps the variation is a regional thing, or maybe he’d been scolded by my mother too many times – one of her hobbies used to be basket weaving.

  21. We’ve been teaching Underwater Basket Weaving at Reed College for more than three decades now. Veritas!

  22. I’ve only ever heard of the phrase as just plain ‘basket-weaving’, as in “You’re going to Sonoma State? What are you majoring in, basket-weaving?”

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