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"go to hell in a handbasket"

by Mark Israel
 
     [This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]

This phrase, meaning "to deteriorate rapidly", originated in the
U.S. in the early 20th century.  A handbasket is just a basket with
a handle.  Something carried in a handbasket goes wherever it's going
without much resistance.

   James L. Rader of Merriam-Webster Editorial Dept. writes:  "The
Dictionary of American Regional English [...] records 'to go to
heaven in a handbasket' much earlier than [...] 'hell,' which is not
attested before the 1950s.  The earliest cite in our files is from
1949 [...].  'In a handbasket' seems to imply ease and and speed
[...].  Perhaps part of the success of these phrases must simply be
ascribed to the force of alliteration.  DARE has a much earlier
citation for another alliterative collocation with 'handbasket'
(1714), from Samuel Sewall's diary:  'A committee brought in
something about Piscataqua.  Govr said he would give his head in a
Handbasket as soon as he would pass it.' I suspect that 'to go to
hell in a handbasket' has been around much longer than our records
would seem to indicate."