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"(The World Is) Going to Hell in a Handbasket"

The Joneses (well, SOME of the Joneses) frequently use this expression.  We've been trying to figure out how it originated.  Several  possible responses are below.  We appreciate this information, and we're still searching!  Your comments are invited -- please send to Webmaster.

1.  (From World Wide Words,  (C) Michael B. Quinion)

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 the 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 a 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.

2.  (From ASK.COM,  no attribution available)

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 1920s.   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.

3.  (From Deanna Chiasson, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department )

''Going to hell in a handbasket'' is an informal expression that means ''quickly and surely heading toward deterioration or ruin,'' as in ''He thought the country was going to hell in a handbasket when they started playing baseball at night.''   It is most likely that the phrase stems from the function of a handbasket.  Though the word ''handbasket'' is now seldom used  independently of the phrase in question, it originally referred to a small portable basket, much like the kind you find stacked at the entrances to most of today's supermarkets.  Small enough to be carried in one hand, the handbasket came to be associated with accomplishing something with ease and speed.  A similar association explains the less popular ''going to hell in a handbag,'' which carries the same meaning as the ''handbasket'' form of the expression.  Our earliest written example of ''going to hell in a handbasket" 'dates back to 1949.  Ironically, this first recorded usage is predated by the phrase ''go to heaven in a handbasket,'' recorded in the Dictionary of American Regional English.  The ''heaven'' usage appears as a listing in a glossary and refers to the holding of an ecclesiastical office that requires little or no work.  This use, though obviously very different from today's ''going to hell in a handbasket,'' clearly illustrates the early association of handbaskets with ease.

It is important to keep in mind that all of the above expressions owe much to the popularity of alliteration.  Words that begin with the same sound are often yoked together, even when meaning alone doesn't fully justify the grouping (case in point:  ''bigger than a bread box'').  ''Handbasket'' appeared in phrases with other  ''h'' words as far back as the 18th century.   A diary entry from 1714 tells the story of a statesman who, when asked to approve a proposal, refused vehemently by saying that he would rather ''give his head in a handbasket.''   It is likely that ''going to hell in a handbasket'' has been in use much longer than our written evidence indicates.  Informal expressions like this one often exist in speech for decades before they are ever written down.   As a result, our examples of earliest recorded usage don't always provide enough information to fully explain how certain phrases were originally formed and used.   We must sometimes be satisfied with the bits and pieces we do have and remind ourselves that if all English expressions were completely transparent, the language wouldn't be nearly as   fascinating.

4.  (From "Noni", October 2000)

As I was reading the info on the meaning or derivation of "going to hell in a hand basket" (also there was mention of "head in a hand basket" a couple of times) it occurred to me the when the guillotine was used in France to decapitate the criminals that their heads would fall into a basket.  Get it?  Head in a basket...they were small baskets that could have been considered hand baskets and they were criminals and thugs ( for the most part!) and therefore would go to hell after death....just a thought.

5.  (From Hank Kisner, August 2001)

I, like you, pondered this for a long time. How would one fit in a handbasket and why would one go to hell in one?  Then one day I happened to be talking to someone about some of the atrocities in our world over the centuries and the probable origin of the phrase just popped into my mind.  Not only in France, but in Merry Olde England beheading was a form of execution.  In both countries, I believe it was common to have the head lopped off into a small basket to be carried away after the execution.   Whether France or England, it is quite conceivable to me that when someone inquired about the welfare of another who  had "lost his head" that a very descriptive response might have been "He went to hell in a handbasket."  We may never know for certain, but that sounds as plausible as any other derivation I've heard.  

It is not uncommon for one person to make a comment and have it become very popular and generalized to other situations.  A good example - "It's not over until the fat lady sings".  I read this in a newspaper and I shall try to relate it from memory.  It seems a junk yard proprietor in Chicago became quite wealthy over the years and his wife in wanting to keep status with their increasing wealth became a patron of the Arts. She would often have her husband accompany her to the ballet or opera or whatever.   One night he had some of his less refined friends accompany him to the opera.   At one point late in the opera one of the friends, thinking the opera to be over, started applauding. That's when the junk dealer corrected him with the line "It ain't over till the fat lady sings."  As luck would have it a newspaper critic heard the comment and published it in his column the next day.

I actually went searching for confirmation of the conclusion I had arrived at when I stumbled onto your website.  I was surprised in perusing yours and several others that there was no definitive statement as to where the phrase came from.   I might note, however, that in re-reading one segment of your sources it occurred to me that there might be some support for my deduction.  The part about the English statesman in 1714 that entered in his diary "I would rather give my head in a hand basket..." to
me would translate to I would rather be executed by beheading. This could indicate that the referral to execution by beheading as "head (or person) in a handbasket" might have been quite common for that period. 

6.  (From Daniel Kershaw, December 2001)

I had a friend ask me about this phrase and thought I would do a quick look
to see what I could find on it.  I found your site and thought that I would
respond to give you a thought that I had on the subject.  Let me know what
you think about this suggestion.
 
My thoughts are that there might have been a couple of old maids viewing the
fact that some young gentleman might be associating with the wrong crowd in
their opinions (i.e. a "flapper" or the likes in the 20's) and commented on
the fact that this association would surely carry the gentleman down with
his companions to hell.  Due to the fact that he would be going to hell via
the associations he had made, they would be carrying him "to hell in a
handbasket".