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The meaning and origin of the expression: Going to hell in a handbasket

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Going to hell in a handbasket

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Going to hell in a handbasket'?

To be 'going to hell in a handbasket' is to be rapidly deteriorating - on course for disaster.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Going to hell in a handbasket'?

It isn't at all obvious why 'handbasket' was chosen as the preferred vehicle to convey people to hell. One theory on the origin of the phrase is that derives from the use of handbaskets in the guillotining method of capital punishment. If Hollywood films are to be believed, the decapitated heads were caught in baskets - the casualty presumably going straight to hell, without passing Go. That's a nice theory but fails a pretty basic test - guillotines were invented in the 18th century and the phrase dates from the 17th.

The first version of 'to hell in a handbasket' that I can find in print comes from the Weekly pacquet of advice from Rome: or, The history of popery, 1682:

"...that noise of a Popish Plot was nothing in the world but an intrigue of the Whigs to destroy the Kings best Friends, and the Devil fetch me to Hell in a Hand basket, if I might have my will, there should not be one Fa∣natical Dog left alive in the three Kingdoms."

The widely held belief that 'hell in a handbasket' is of US origin is incorrect, although it isn't often now used outside the USA. There are variants of the phrase that use various forms of transport, travelling either to hell or to heaven. The English preacher Thomas Adams referred to 'going to heaven in a wheelbarrow' in Gods Bounty on Proverbs, 1618:

Oh, this oppressor [that is, one who was wealthy but gave little to the church] must needs go to heaven! What shall hinder him? But it will be, as the byword is, in a wheelbarrow: the fiends, and not the angels, will take hold on him.

Going to Hell in a handbasket'Going to heaven in a wheelbarrow' was a euphemistic way of saying 'going to hell'. The notion of sinners being literally wheeled to hell in barrows or carts is certainly very old. The medieval 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. Hieronymous Bosch's painting The Haywain, circa 1515, shows fallen sinners being put aboard a haycart that is trundling its inevitable path to hell.

'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'. 'In a handbasket' is an alliterative intensifier which gives the expression a catchy ring. There doesn't appear to be any particular significance to 'handbasket' apart from the alliteration - any other conveyance beginning with 'H' would have done just as well. The similar earlier phrases 'hell in a basket' and 'hell in a wheelbarrow', not having the same catchiness, have now disappeared from common use. Let's launch 'going to hell in a hovercraft' and see if that flies.

The earliest citation of 'Hell in a handcart' that I can find for that is in Elbridge Paige's book of Short Patent Sermons, 1841:

[Those people] who would rather ride to hell in a hand-cart than walk to heaven supported by the staff of industry.

[Note: My thanks to Peter Lukacs, ElizabethanDrama.org for the 1682 citation.]

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

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