Going to Hell in a Handbasket – Origin & Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Welcome to my deep dive into the idiomatic expression hell in a handbasket. It’s a phrase that’s been around for quite a while, used to depict a situation headed for disaster. Don’t worry, there’s no need to clutch your pearls. This phrase is less about damnation and more about unraveling situations. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and dissect this old expression.

Going to Hell in a Handbasket Meaning Explained

Going to Hell in a Handbasket Origin Meaning

If someone tells you things are going to hell in a handbasket, don’t look around for a fiery abyss. It’s just a metaphorical way of saying things are going disastrously wrong and spiraling out of control.

This could be applied to anything from a project at work to world events. So, if your houseplants are looking worse for wear, your pet goldfish is giving you the side-eye, and you can’t find your left shoe, you might say your day is going to hell in a handbasket.

Is Handbasket One Word or Two?

In the idiomatic phrase going to hell in a handbasket, the word handbasket is indeed meant to be one word. It’s one of those compound words where two separate terms, hand and basket, are joined together to create a new meaning. So, no need for a hyphen or a space. Keep these words cozied up together like two peas in a pod.

Hell in a Handbasket Origin and Etymology

The exact origin of this phrase is hard to pin down, as is the case with many old idioms. But the concept of using hell in phrases to indicate dire straits has been around for centuries. As for the handbasket part, it’s a bit of a mystery.

Some say it’s related to the civil war and how soldiers would be sent home with severed limbs in a handbasket or basketcase. But the idiom was used prior to the war, so while it may have been used during those years, that’s not its origin.

Back in the days of execution via guillotine, a handbasket was used to catch the head and stop it from rolling away, and a lot of sources state a theory that connects the old practice to the expression. It does paint a picture of ease and inevitability; after all, what’s an easier way to carry things than in a handbasket? Even a severed head…

Hell in a Handbasket Ngram
Hell in a handbasket usage trend.

But the full phrase, going to hell in a handbasket, was first documented in the mid-17th century, and the guillotine wasn’t invented until the 18th century. You can find it in print as early as 1682 in the Weekly Pacquet of Advice from Rome:

“…that noise of a Popish Plot was nothing in the world but an intrigue of the Whigs to destroy the Kings best Friends, and the Devil fetch me to Hell in a Hand basket, if I might have my will, there should not be one Fanatical Dog left alive in the three Kingdoms.”

Go to Hell in a Handbasket Synonyms

Need some alternatives for this dramatic phrase? Try any of these terms instead.

  • Going to the dogs
  • Headed for disaster
  • On the road to ruin
  • Spiraling out of control
  • On a downward spiral

Hell in a Handbasket Examples in a Sentence

Going to Hell in a Handbasket Origin Meaning 1
  • After the lead actor quit, our school play seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket pretty fast.
  • Without proper leadership from the managing editor, the publishing project went to hell in a handbasket in no time.
  • My week went to hell in a handbasket when I lost my phone, missed my flight, and forgot my best friend’s birthday.
  • If we don’t change our environmental policies soon, our planet will be going to hell in a handbasket.

In a Nutshell…

Whether we’re referring to a nosediving project or a chaotic week, going to hell in a handbasket is an expressive way to convey a disastrous turn of events. Just remember to use it sparingly; after all, not every burnt pancake or traffic jam is a one-way trip to Hades! And if you ever find yourself in a handbasket, you might want to check where it’s headed!

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