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Going to hell in a handbasket

Q From Brian Walker: Can you please tell me anything about the origin of the phrase going to hell in a handbasket?

A This is a weird one. It’s a fairly common American expression, known for much of the twentieth century. But it’s one about which almost no information exists, at least in the two dozen or so reference books I’ve consulted. William and Mary Morris, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, confess to the same difficulty. A handbasket is just a basket to be carried in the hand (my thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary for that gem of definition). The Dictionary of American Regional English records to go to heaven in a handbasket rather earlier than the alternative, which doesn’t appear in print until the 1940s (Walt Quader tells me that Burton Stevenson included a citation in his Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases from Bayard Kendrick’s The Odor of Violets, published in 1941). But DARE quotes a related expression from 1714: “A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it”, which suggests that it, or at least phrases like it, have been around in the spoken language for a long time. For example, there’s an even older expression, to go to heaven in a wheelbarrow, recorded as early as 1629, which also meant “to go to hell”. I can only assume that the alliteration of the hs has had a lot to do with the success of the various phrases, and that perhaps handbasket suggests something easily and speedily done.

Page created 19 Jan. 1999

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Last modified: 19 January 1999.