Dear Word Detective: Why do we say that someone is “going to Hell in a handbasket”? Why a “handbasket”? What exactly does the full expression mean? — Sharm.
Well, it means that person is in a heap o’ trouble, on a slippery slope, circling the drain and on the road to perdition. But before we all get to gloating, we should note that a lot of us seem to be “handbasketeers” today. A quick search of Google News turns up more than 300 recent news media uses of “hell in a handbasket,” including this cheery note from the New York Daily News: “The economy is going down the drain, the cost of living is going through the roof, and low-income New Yorkers are going to hell in a handbasket” (July 11, 2008). And things are no better Down Under, to judge from the Australian newspaper The Age: “It’s hell in a handbasket time, or so it seems judging by the recent rush of bad news on all fronts” (July 20, 2008). It looks like buying stock in a handbasket manufacturer may be your best bet at this point.
I first tackled this question back in 1996, with limited success. Unfortunately, the origin of “going to hell in a handbasket,” meaning “to deteriorate, especially rapidly,” hasn’t become any more certain in the years since. We do know that the phrase is an American invention, and that it first appeared in print, as far as we know, in 1865: “Thousands of our best men were prisoners in Camp Douglas, and if once at liberty would ‘send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.’”
The question, of course, is “why a handbasket”? Is there something particularly diabolical about handbaskets (small baskets with handles, usually used for carrying fruit or flowers) that makes them suitable for conveying one to Hades? The answer appears to be no, since “going to hell in a handcart” seems to be a popular variant in Britain, and “going to hell in a bucket” is popular on the internet (as well as a wide variety of lame puns such as “going to hell in a Hummer” and “in a handbag”).
I think the addition of “in a handbasket” (or “handcart”) served two purposes. The first is simple alliteration, always a good way to make a phrase catchy and memorable. The second, the idea of being carried to hell in a basket or cart, makes the journey more concrete in the listener’s mind, since “go to hell” by itself is a worn phrase hardly anyone takes literally anymore. The basket or cart also implies swift and irrevocable transport to doom.