Posted by Bruce Kahl on December 07, 1999
In Reply to: Going to hell in a handbasket posted by Jennifer Borchardt on December 06, 1999
: Could someone please tell me where the phrase "going to hell in a handbasket" came from?
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."
The expression to hell meaning 'to ruin or destruction; to an unfortunate state of affairs' is found since the early nineteenth century. The early examples are quite natural sounding today: "There's a thousand dollars gone to hell," wrote someone in 1827. ("Go to hell!" used as an exclamation is older, and is not often found in fancier forms.)
Simple but pungent expressions like this often develop elaborated variants; for example, the imprecation "kiss my ass!" can be expanded (from one direction) into "kiss my royal Irish ass!" or (from another) into "kiss my ass in Macy's window!" Similarly, the expression "go to hell" developed a number of variants describing the conveyance for reaching Pluto's realm, and these conveyances don't necessarily make sense. Carl Sandburg, writing about the 1890s, comments that "The first time I heard about a man 'going to hell in a hanging basket' I did a lot of wondering what a hanging basket is like." Whatever a "hanging basket" is, it gives us the alliteration, like such other common examples as "going to hell in a hack [i.e. a taxicab]," "handcart," and our "handbasket." Non-alliterating versions include "in a wheelbarrow," "on a poker," "in a bucket" ("But at least I'm enjoying the ride," as the Grateful Dead say), and "in a basket."