Going to Hell in a Handbasket

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesDefinition: to degenerate quickly, to unravel decisively, to head for imminent disaster

Variations: go to hell in a basket, go to hell in a bucket, going to hell in a handbasket, going to hell in a handcart

Origin: Things and people have been going to hell for a long time — long before handbaskets were even invented, and certainly long before they were fashionable. A clue to the origin of the phrase is the first recorded use of handbasket (a small basket with a handle used for shopping) in 1485. Lexicographers believe the phrase probably originated sometime after the 15th century. But why a handbasket, and not a can, satchel, pail, or some other common item? Lexicographer Michael Quinion thinks that alliteration was the key: “I can only assume that the alliteration has had a lot to do with [the phrase’s] success, and that handbasket suggests something easily and speedily done.”

Although the phrase and its variants were probably used for centuries — people were going to hell in all kinds of vessels, but then the phrase evolved to its more modern form in the 19th century in America. Gary Martin, author of The Phrase Finder, found a variant as early as 1841 in Short Patent Sermons by Elbridge Paige: “[Those people] who would rather ride to hell in a hand-cart than walk to heaven supported by the staff of industry.” Quinion found the first recorded use of the target phrase in a book about the American Civil War, The Great North-Western Conspiracy (1865), written by I. Winslow Ayer: “[Judge Buckner Morris] referred to the suspension of the habeas corpus, and said many of our best men were at that moment ‘rotting in Lincoln’s bastilles;’ … that thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand-basket.'”

Although the exact origin of the phrase is not entirely clear, one thing is for certain: hell is brimming with handbaskets.

Read related posts: Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard

For further reading: Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (2008)

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