Hell in a Handbasket – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Imagine the scene, you’re at a protest, and things suddenly turn to chaos as people start smashing shop windows, setting things on fire, and looting. You could say that things went to hell in a handbasket in seconds.

This post unpacks the origin and meaning of this idiom.

Hell in a Handbasket Meaning

When you’re using “hell in a handbasket” in conversation, you’re referring to how a situation rapidly deteriorated into chaos. The idiom could refer to everything going well and then “going to hell in a handbasket,” or it could describe an already dire scenario that is about to get even worse.

To say “hell in a handbasket” means that the situation is heading for a complete disaster, and there is little you can do to prevent it from happening.

Hell in a Handbasket Example Usage

“The electricity went out, the heat stopped, and the garbage men didn’t collect today. Man, everything is going to hell in a handbasket today.”

“This quarter’s sales are down 38%, customers don’t like the new product, and the whole campaign is going to hell in a handbasket.”

“The situation on the ground is worsening; the people are starting to set fire to cars and burn buildings, everything is going to hell in a handbasket.”

“I lost my job and couldn’t pay my insurance. I had a car accident yesterday and wrote off the vehicle; everything went to hell in a handbasket.”

“Everything was fine until he showed up, then it went to hell in a handbasket.”

Hell in a Handbasket Origin

The earliest version of “Hell in a handbasket” comes from the weekly advice from Rome, or “The History of popery, 1682.” In the text, we find the following.

“…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 Handbasket, if I might have my will, there should not be one Fanatical Dog left alive in the Three Kingdoms.”

Hell in a handbasket also has a similar meaning to “going to the dogs,” and it’s another way of saying “everything is going to hell.” The “handbasket” in the phrase provides it with an intensifier that brings a catchy ring to the expression.

Some of the earlier phrases used include “hell in a wheelbarrow,” but this expression faded from use. One of the earliest references to the term uses “hell in a hand-cart,” featuring in Elbridge Paige’s “Book of Short Patent Sermons,” published in 1841. The text reads as follows.

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

Phrases Similar to Hell in a Handbasket

  • That went south.
  • Hell in a hand-cart.
  • Going to the dogs.
  • Things fell apart.
  • That took a dive.
  • Everything descended into chaos.

Phrases Opposite to Hell in a Handbasket

  • Everything is peachy.
  • Everything is rosy.
  • See it through rose-colored glasses.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Hell in a handbasket.

Ways People May Say Hell in a Handbasket Incorrectly

This colloquial phrase suits use in many situations, but it’s probably not appropriate for use around children. Typically, the phrase refers to an adverse outcome, so using it when there is a mild adverse outcome would be hyperbole of the term.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Hell in a Handbasket

You can use “hell in a handbasket” in social and professional settings. However, using it in professional settings would usually imply a reference to a bad situation in business. You can use the phrase to describe the actions of others, an outcome of an event, or behavior in others.

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