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.
Dear Word Detective: Recently in reading a P. G. Wodehouse story I found him referring (twice!) to someone as “twiddling his fingers.” I always thought that one could only twiddle one’s thumbs. Did the British of Wodehouse’s era discover some new talent? And what does “twiddle” mean anyway? — FJW.
Oh, no, there are all sorts of things one can twiddle. As a child, I used to pass hours twiddling my toes, my fingers and my ears, sometimes simultaneously. And when I worked in an office, I mastered the art of twiddling a pencil like a miniature drum major’s baton, a pastime I truly enjoyed until my officemates began to wonder aloud if said pencil would fit up my nose. I still like to twiddle Brownie the Dog’s ears. I find this enormously entertaining but she doesn’t seem to appreciate it, even when I show her how funny it looks in the mirror. And no, I don’t plan to grow up anytime soon.
One of the things I love about the folks who run the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is their ability to lend an air of solemnity to definitions of even the silliest words in English, including “twiddle”: “To cause to rotate lightly or delicately; to turn (anything) about, especially with the fingers; to twirl; to play with idly or absently; also, to adjust or bring into some place or condition by twirling or handling lightly.” Is it just me, or does that make “twiddling” sound like something you’d actually need lessons to do?
The roots of “twiddle” are, thankfully, both simple and poetic. “Twiddle” is onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) in origin, the sound of the word itself intended to evoke the light, twirling action of “twiddling,” and (to quote the OED again) “intended to combine the idea of ‘twirl’ or ‘twist’ with that of trifling action, as in ‘fiddle,’ ‘piddle.’” In the case of “twiddling” one’s thumbs, the usual routine is to interlock the fingers of your hands while resting them in your lap or on a surface in front of you, and twirl your thumbs around each other. “Twiddling one’s thumbs” is such a universally-recognized expression of extreme boredom that it would almost certainly get you thrown off a jury if the judge caught you doing it.
“Twiddling one’s fingers,” however, is open to interpretation. Your thumbs are, of course, legally fingers, so perhaps Wodehouse simply meant the standard gesture of boredom. Then again, it is easy to add one’s index fingers to the mix, so maybe that’s what he meant. By the way, I have just now tried it with all my fingers simultaneously and I seem to have hurt myself, so there are, apparently, limits to “twiddling.”
Incidentally, “piddle,” to which “twiddle” is linked by the OED, meant originally “to fool around, to work ineffectually,” and is also “echoic” in origin. “Fiddle,” however, while also used to mean “to play with” or “to act frivolously,” was originally a perfectly serious synonym for “violin” and actually comes from the same medieval Latin root (“vitula”) as “violin” itself.
Dear Word Detective: Every now and again it is my utmost pleasure to “run across” your website. At this juncture I am looking for the origin of the term “scott free” and, alas, you do not have the answer. I hope that you will come through for me soon. — ncarolinafran.
Well, there you go. More evidence that I’m just a digital wallflower, waiting patiently by the side of the web, hoping that strangers will happen by my rickety little stand and read my glittering prose, perchance to tell their friends and someday propel me to Hollywood fame and fortune as the George Clooney of etymology. As a marketing strategy, this plan has clearly not caught fire.
As for your question, however, I can steal the slogan of the Staples office supply chain and declare “Yeah, we’ve got that.” I actually did a column on this question back in 1999, which is, even as we speak, snoozing peacefully in my online archives at www.word-detective.com. But 1999 was a long time ago, so it can’t hurt to revisit the topic.
The reason you didn’t notice the answer to your question in our archives is that the phrase is properly spelled “scot-free,” with only one “t.” That correction, of course, raises the next question many folks have about “scot-free,” which is its relation to Scotland (and the Scots who live there). There isn’t one. Really. No connection whatsoever.
The “scot” in “scot-free” is an English word taken from Old Norse, where it meant “tax or assessment.” In the Middle Ages in England, each town levied a general tax on residents which was called the “scot.” If for some reason a citizen was ruled exempt from the tax, he was said to go “scot-free.” This tax-related literal sense of the phrase first appeared in the 13th century. But by the 16th century “scot-free” was being used in its more general modern sense of “exempt from punishment, responsibility or blame” (“She should not, for all the trouble she has cost you, go away scot-free,” 1740).
Speaking of words that sound as if they must have something to do with Scotland but don’t, “scotch,” meaning “to abruptly deflate or disprove” a rumor or theory, is another. This “scotch” comes from the Old French word “escocher,” meaning “to cut.” In this case it meant to “cut out” or destroy a rumor. It is, in fact, the same non-Scottish “scotch” as is found in the name of the children’s game “hopscotch,” referring to the playing lines cut into or drawn on the ground. And while we’re at it, butterscotch candy doesn’t come from you-know-where. It’s called that because it is made from butter and used to be cut (“scotched”) into small pieces.