Hell in a handbasket

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Hell in a handbasket : Phrases


'Going to hell in a handbasket' is to be deteriorating - on a course for disaster.



The transit to hell is conjured up in various terms that use the imagery of swiftness; for example 'hellbent' and 'hell for leather'.

There are one or two theories as to why 'handbasket' was chosen as the preferred vehicle to be conveyed to hell. Handbaskets are, of course, baskets that are carried by hand. Items put in a handbasket are moved without resistance and it could be that the imagery of someone being taken off directly and without choice was in the mind of whoever coined the phrase. Another theory is that it derives from the use of the guillotine and the imagery of decipitated heads being caught in baskets, the casualty presumably going straight to hell, without passing Go. The first use of an alliterative 'in a handbasket' phrase does in fact relate to head rather than hell. In Samuel Sewall's Diary, 1714, we find:

"A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it."

There's no real evidence to support those theories. 'Going to hell in a handbasket' seems to be just a colourful version of 'going to hell', in the same sense as 'going to the dogs'. The 'in a handbasket' is an alliterative intensifier which gives it a catchy ring. There doesn't appear to be any particular significance to 'handbasket' apart from the alliteration. That view is backed-up by the existence of similar earlier phrases, which, not having the same catchiness, have now disappeared - for example, 'hell in a basket' and 'hell in a wheelbarrow'.

The notion of sinners being literally transported to hell in carts is certainly very old. The mediaeval stained glass windows of Fairford Church in Gloucestershire contain an image of a woman being carried off to purgatory in a wheelbarrow pushed by a blue devil. The phrase isn't that old though and 'going to hell in a handbasket' and its alternative form 'going to hell in a handcart', originated in the US, around the start of the 20th century. The 'handbasket' version is now the more common there, although neither version is widely used in other English-speaking countries.

'Hell in a handcart' is found in print before 'hell in a handbasket'. The earliest citation I can find for that is in The Trenton Times, January 1895:

"Let me tell the gentleman that I am not talking today to men who believe in going to hell in a handcart instead of to heaven supported by truth."

Given the perfectly serviceable phrase 'hell in a handcart', the reason why the handbasket version arose isn't clear. There may be a connection between 'going to hell in a handbasket' and 'basket-case', but that's just speculation.

The currently used 'hell in a handbasket' doesn't appear in print until the 1920s, although it was probably in circulation in the spoken language for some time before that. The earliest example that I've found is from a 'New York Day To Day' column, written by O. O. McIntyre and syndicated to several US newspaper, including the Waterloo Evening Courier, December 1928:

"Not every small town girl, casting her lot in the theatrical world of Broadway, scoots to hell in a handbasket."

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