Hell in a handbasket

I prefer “damnation bow-wows,” myself.

Dear WD: After hunting through the sources in our library, and asking several people, someone finally told me that you would be the one to answer my question if anyone could. All I want to know is what is the source or background of the phrase “going to hell in a handbasket.” I didn’t think it would be so tough to discover but it’s got me stumped so I now bring my quest to you. Thanks for any assistance — C.C.

Dear WD: Can you tell me the origin of the phrase “to hell in a handbasket”? — K. Greenstein.

Hmm. Before we get down to business, I’d like to point out that there is a sort of “meta-question” raised by the fact that I received both of these questions with a week of each other. This sort of coincidence always makes me wonder whether I’ve missed some major cultural event that put a particular phrase on the tip of our collective national tongue. If anyone out there has heard a high-profile use of “going to hell in a handbasket” recently, please drop me a line so I can stop wondering (unless it has something to do with Beavis and Butthead, in which case I’d rather not know).

Clues to the origin of “going to hell in a handbasket,” meaning “deteriorating rapidly or utterly,” are, unfortunately, scarce as hens’ teeth. The eminent slang historian Eric Partridge, in his “Dictionary of Catchphrases,” dates the term to the early 1920’s. Christine Ammer, in her “Have A Nice Day — No Problem,” a dictionary of cliches, agrees that the phrase probably dates to the early 20th century, and notes that the alliteration of “hell” and “handbasket” probably contributed to the popularity of the saying. Ms. Ammer goes a bit further and ventures that, since handbaskets are “light and easily conveyed,” the term “means going to hell easily and rapidly.” That seems a bit of a stretch to me, but I do think the addition of “in a handbasket” (or “in a bucket,” as one variant puts it) does sound more dire and hopeless than simply “going to hell.”

5 comments on this post.
  1. Rutger Flugal:

    In the UK we tend to go for “Hell in a handcart”.

  2. Greenwick:

    I am sure it is growing in popularity again now that many internet memes involve the phrase, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?”

  3. Don Buckley:

    The singing artist Meatloaf is releasing an album called “going to hell in a handbasket”, which has been getting sporadic publicity, so this may be the catalyst for these questions.

  4. Brijit:

    My mother, who is full of malapropisms, often confuses it with her own version– “hell in a handbag”. I don’t know why, but that’s a little bit funnier to me. I guess I picture going to hell in a grumpy old lady’s purse!

  5. Murray Callahan:

    “A HANDBAG???? I will not have my daughter forming an alliance with a PARCEL!”

    (from “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

Leave a comment