Posted by ESC on January 09, 2000
In Reply to: TO HELL IN A HAND BASKET posted by Bruce Kahl on January 08, 2000
: : Need to find an origin of "hell in a handbasket."
: 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."
"'hell in a handbasket' poses one of the most perplexing problems that has crossed our desk in years," according to the "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrases" by William and Mary Morris. The authors couldn't find the expression in any of the usual references. Ditto for me. It seems to me that I've heard a variation -- going to hell in a handcart. I picture a handcart as a kind of wheelbarrow. Maybe the person in question is so dissipated by sin that he or she has to be carried to hell. On another phrase subject, "No Problem, Have a Nice Day" is out of print, I believe. Does the book have information on "have a nice day." Someone posted an inquiry on that phrase but I couldn't find much.