The Grammarphobia Blog

To hell in a handbasket

Q: Any ideas about the expression “going to hell in a handbasket”? I didn’t find a very satisfactory derivation on Google. One early 18th-century citation on Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words mentions a “head in a Handbasket.” Could the basket in question refer to a container used to catch the results of a beheading? (Or am I just being over-influenced by recently watching Mary Queen of Scots meet her end on DVD?)

A: I don’t see anything in my usual language references to link the expression with a beheading. You can find almost anything on the Internet, of course, but the only reference I’ve seen on a serious language site is this brief, uncertain mention on The Phrase Finder’s Discussion Forum: “It seems to me that someone suggested that the basket used to catch the head during a beheading gave rise to ‘hell in a handbasket.’”

Michael Quinion is extremely reliable on these matters and I wouldn’t hesitate to accept his entry on “hell in a handbasket,” even though it’s necessarily inconclusive. Here’s how he sums up the situation: “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.” In other words, some of these things will never be tracked down.

Another Internet source I trust is Evan Morris’s Word Detective site, which gives this explanation: “Clues to the origin of ‘going to hell in a handbasket,’ meaning ‘deteriorating rapidly or utterly,’ are, unfortunately, scarce as hens’ teeth.” He notes that Christine Ammer, in Have A Nice Day – No Problem, a dictionary of clichés, dates the expression from the early 20th century and suggests that the alliteration of ‘hell’ and ‘handbasket’ probably contributed to its popularity.

I might add that there are scores of variations on this theme: the poor victim may go to hell not only in a handbasket but also “on a poker,” “in a bucket,” “in a hack,” “in a handcart,” “on a handcar,” “in a basket,” “in a hanging basket” [probably a deliberately humorous mistake], “on a shutter,” “in a wheelbarrow,” “on a toboggan,” and even “schooner-rigged.”

Despite the 18th-century citation you mentioned about “head in a Handbasket,” which comes close to the usual expression, there are no published references to “hell in a handbasket” more than a century old.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.