You may not hear the expression “going to hell in a handbasket” every day, but it does exist in the English language, and natives use it when appropriate. It can sound a little odd if you don’t know what it means, but we assure you it has nothing to do with hell or handbasket.
Knowing the meaning and origin of this American phrase will help you use it as well as understand it when someone mentions it during a conversation.
Going to hell in a handbasket - Meaning
Going to hell in a handbasket means deteriorating rapidly, a situation when a complete ruin or failure is inevitable. If someone uses this phrase, they want to say the situation is getting quickly out of hand and going downhill rapidly.
Climate change scientists are convinced that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
With the way she is running things, no wonder the agency is going to hell in a handbasket.
Going to hell in a handbasket - Origin
This expression came into general use during the American Civil War. While you can see why “hell” is used in the phrase, the reason for “handbasket” is a bit unclear.
Similar phrases such as “going to heaven in a wheelbarrow” and “head in a headbasket” may give a clue. The first one actually meant “going to hell,” and the latter depicts the execution by the guillotine during the French Revolution when people’s heads were dropped into a basket.
However, “handbasket” is most likely used because of alliteration, representing something easily and quickly done.
Other similar expressions with alliteration include “going to hell in a handbag” and “going to hell in a handcart,” but they are not as popular as “going to hell in a handbasket.”