Monday, May 25, 2015

Handbasket to Hell

“Going to hell in a handbasket”—that is, a rapidly worsening situation—is a nineteenth-century phrase whose origin has been much discussed. An earlier version was “in a handcart,” but the basket seems to have prevailed. Some scholars say “handbasket” has no particular meaning and is simply an alliterative intensifier, and that any conveyance beginning with “h”—a hansom cab or a hardbody, say,  would suffice. 

One of the earliest instances of the “handbasket” phrase is found in documents of the U. S. Congress of 1867, in which a pro-Southern judge refers to men arrested for collaborating in a Confederate conspiracy as “rotting in Lincoln’s bastilles…if they were once at liberty [they] would send the abolitionists to hell in a hand-basket.”

“To hell in a hand-cart” is found as early as 1841 in a book of sermons by Elbridge Paige.

Some etymologists relate the phrase to a stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, which shows a scolding wife being carted away by the devil in a wheelbarrow.

A more fanciful explanation traces the phrase to the French Revolution, when aristocrats were guillotined and their heads fell into a basket, which would no doubt provide their speedy passage to the fiery netherworld.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks going to hell in a handbasket might be as comfortable a way to travel there as any.  He has one ready, just in case.

                        The road to hell is paved, they say,
                        With many good intentions.
                        You’ll find them all along the way,
                        As the poet Virgil mentions.

                        If I fall prey to heaven’s wrath
                        With the wicked and depraved,
                        And find myself upon that path—
                        I’ll be glad, at least, it’s paved.

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