Lexicon Valley

Where Did Hillary Get a Phrase Like “Basket of Deplorables”?

Hillary Clinton.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” is destined to become one of the lasting catchphrases of the campaign season.


Clinton’s use of the phrase (which she says now she regrets*) appeared in a speech delivered at a fundraiser on Friday night:


You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.

Clinton had deployed the word deplorables at least once before, in an interview on Israeli TV on Thursday with phrasing similar to Friday night’s speech:


If I were to be grossly generalistic, I’d say you can take Trump supporters and put them in two big baskets. There are what I call the deplorables.

Deplorables, whether or not they’re in baskets, fit a pattern we’ve observed in the past: adjectives ending in -able or -ible that are turned into pluralizable nouns. Back in 2008, I looked at horribles and terribles as examples of this pattern:


More generally, many adjectives ending in -able/-ible have spawned related noun forms: think of collectibles, convertibles, deductibles, disposables, intangibles, perishables, and unmentionables. Sometimes the noun overtakes the adjective: vegetable comes from an adjective describing something that is able to vegetate, i.e., grow like a plant.

Pluralized horribles have most often occurred in the set phrase “parade of horribles.” For a Boston Globe column in 2012, I traced the “parade of horribles” back to mid-19th-century New England, when austere parades of “ancients and honorables” held on Independence Day were spoofed, burlesque-style, as “antiques and horribles.” Shore towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island have continued the satirical tradition, holding “parades of horribles” every year.


Meanwhile, starting in the 1920s, the phrase entered legal usage as a dismissive term for imagined concerns about a ruling’s negative effects. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg memorably referred to “the broccoli horrible” in her opinion on a 2012 Obamacare ruling. (For more, see my follow-ups to the Globe column on Language Log and Vocabulary.com.)

As Nancy Friedman observed on Twitter, there’s a rhyming echo of “parade of horribles” in Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.” Given Clinton’s lawyerly background, it’s a good guess that “parade of horribles” inspired her turn of phrase. The plural noun deplorables, however, has far more scattered historical usage in English than horribles. The OED defines deplorables as “deplorable ills” and provides a single citation from the journal of Sir Walter Scott:


1828 Scott Jrnl. 10 Apr. (1941) 222 An old fellow, mauld with rheumatism and other deplorables.

From a few years later, here is an attestation in an 1831 journal entry by Thomas Carlyle, pairing deplorables with despicables:

Of all the deplorables and despicables of this city and time the saddest are the “literary men.”

And here’s an example from 1901, in a short story published in The Smart Set (“Brocton Mott, Realist,” by Kate Jordan):

He turned to the east and took a Third avenue car down town. It carried a load of deplorables; all uninteresting, some offensive.

No word on whether the deplorables in that streetcar were Trump voters.

*As Bloix points out in the comments, Clinton didn’t say she regrets using the phrase “basket of deplorables”; rather, she regrets saying that “half of Trump’s supporters” could be put in the aforementioned basket.


Update: See this Boston Globe article for more on the spread of the “basket of deplorables” meme. And now Trump has created a commercial called “Deplorables” capitalizing on Clinton’s controversial line.