To Hell and Back {Wordsmith Wednesday}

“To Hell In A Handbasket”

This is an idiom that I throw around every so often and always wonder where it originated.  I mean, I’m picturing the devil on a little, pink bicycle (you know, the one with the banana seat and silver tassels) and he is pedaling down the road (I guess that would be the one paved with good intentions?).  He has some unwitting victim plopped down in the pink, woven basket on the front and is calling out, This way to hell!”  as he rings the little bell, “bing-bing!”  I have a feeling that is not the accurate etymology, so let’s get to the bottom of it together!

Wikipedia, our ever-ready explanation for everything, defines it as a situation headed for disaster without effort or in great haste.

As for the origin, The Phrase Finder claims that the capital punishment method of the 1700’s was beheading at the guillotines and that traditionally, the head was caught in a basket, its previous owner presumably going straight to hell.  The first version of “to hell in a handbasket” found in print does support this theory, albeit the hell-bound head is figurative in its use:

“A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a handbasket as soon as he would pass it.” (Samuel Sewall’s Diary, circa 1714)

Another variation is “to hell in a handcart” which we find in Elbridge Paige’s book of Short Patent Sermons over a century later in 1841:

“[Those people] who would rather ride to hell in a hand-cart than walk to heaven supported by the staff of industry.”

Overall, it seems that this idiom is just a colorful and alliterative way of saying that something or someone is going to the dogs.  (We’ll save that one for another post 😉 )


About ~Sarah

Artist. Musician. Writer. Mother. Daughter. Friend. Christian. Existentialist. Pilgrim.

Posted on December 28, 2011, in wordsmith wednesdays. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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