Understanding the Idiom: "to hell in a handbasket" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English
Etymology: Images in church iconography suggest similar phrases may date back to 1515. The first attestation is from 1682, the variation to hell in a handcart is attested since 1841, and a phrase similar to to heaven in a wheelbarrow is first attested in 1618. The popularity of the variation "to hell in a handbasket" may be connected to its alliteration.

The idiom “to hell in a handbasket” is a colorful expression that conveys the idea of something going wrong or deteriorating rapidly. It is often used to describe situations where things are getting worse and there seems to be no hope for improvement.

This idiom has been around for centuries, but its exact origin is unclear. Some believe it may have originated from the practice of carrying people to their execution in a basket, while others suggest it may have come from the use of baskets to carry goods on horse-drawn carriages.

Regardless of its origins, “to hell in a handbasket” has become a popular phrase in modern English language and is often used in casual conversation as well as literature and media.

It’s important to note that this idiom should not be taken literally. Rather, it serves as an exaggerated metaphor for situations that are spiraling out of control.

In the following sections, we will explore different interpretations and uses of this idiom, providing examples from various sources such as literature, film, and everyday conversation.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “to hell in a handbasket”

The phrase “to hell in a handbasket” is an idiom that has been used for centuries. It describes a situation where things are going badly or getting worse quickly. The origins of this phrase are unclear, but it is believed to have originated in America during the 19th century.

One theory suggests that the phrase may have come from the use of handbaskets to carry goods to market. If the basket was not properly secured, it could easily tip over and spill its contents, leading to ruin for the seller. This idea of something going wrong quickly and disastrously could have led to the creation of this idiom.

Another theory suggests that the phrase may be related to old English folklore about witches riding on broomsticks or baskets to go to Hell. This idea would suggest that when someone says “going to hell in a handbasket,” they mean that things are rapidly deteriorating and heading towards disaster.

Regardless of its origin, this idiom has become widely used today as a way of describing situations where everything seems hopeless or out of control. It is often used humorously but can also convey serious concern about a situation’s direction.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “to hell in a handbasket”

The idiom “to hell in a handbasket” is widely used in English language to describe a situation that is rapidly deteriorating or going wrong. It can be applied to various contexts, from personal relationships to political affairs, and it often implies that the situation has become uncontrollable or irreparable.

Variations of the Idiom

While the core meaning of the idiom remains unchanged, there are several variations that can be used depending on the context:

  • “Going to hell in a handcart”: This variation emphasizes the idea of being transported towards doom with no hope for escape.
  • “Going to hell in a handbag”: This variation adds a touch of femininity and suggests that even delicate objects like handbags can lead one towards destruction.
  • “Going to heck in a handbasket”: A milder version of the idiom suitable for polite company where profanity is not allowed.

Usage Examples

Here are some examples of how this idiom can be used:

Example 1:

The team’s performance went to hell in a handbasket after their star player got injured.

Example 2:

The company’s reputation was going to heck in a handbasket until they hired a new PR firm.

Example 3:

I don’t know what happened between them, but their marriage seems to be going to hell in a handcart.

The idiomatic expression “to hell in a handbasket” is versatile and adaptable, making it a useful tool for expressing frustration, disappointment, or despair. Its variations add nuance and humor to the phrase while retaining its core meaning.

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “to hell in a handbasket”


Some other phrases that convey a similar sentiment to “to hell in a handbasket” include:

– Going downhill fast

– Spiraling out of control

– Heading towards disaster

– Plummeting into chaos

These phrases all suggest a rapid decline or deterioration of a situation.


On the other hand, some antonyms for “to hell in a handbasket” might include:

– On the upswing

– Improving steadily

– Getting better by the day

These phrases indicate an upward trend or positive progress.

Note: It’s worth noting that not all idioms have clear-cut antonyms like these. Some idiomatic expressions simply don’t have direct opposites.

Cultural Insights:

The origin of this particular idiom is unclear, but it has been used in American English since at least the mid-twentieth century. The phrase suggests that something is rapidly deteriorating or going awry – perhaps even beyond repair. It’s often used to describe situations where things were once good but have taken a sudden turn for the worse.

Interestingly, variations of this expression exist in other languages as well. For example, French speakers might say “aller à vau-l’eau,” which translates roughly to “going downstream.” Spanish speakers might use “irse al garete,” which means something like “going down with the ship.”

Understanding these cultural nuances can help us appreciate how language reflects different perspectives and experiences.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “to hell in a handbasket”

Firstly, we suggest that you try using the idiom in conversation with friends or colleagues. This could involve discussing a current situation or news story where things seem to be going wrong quickly. Try to use the idiom naturally and see how your conversation partner responds.

Another exercise is to write a short story or dialogue that includes the idiom. This can help you think about different contexts where the idiom might be used and how it can add color and nuance to your writing.

You could also create flashcards with examples of situations where things have gone “to hell in a handbasket”. Use these cards as prompts for discussion or writing exercises, challenging yourself to come up with creative ways of incorporating the idiom into your responses.

By practicing these exercises regularly, you’ll become more comfortable using idioms like “to hell in a handbasket” naturally and confidently. So go ahead – give it a try!

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “to hell in a handbasket”

When using idioms, it’s important to understand their meanings and usage. The idiom “to hell in a handbasket” is no exception. However, even if you know what the idiom means, there are still some common mistakes that people make when using it.

Mistake #1: Mispronouncing or misspelling the idiom

One of the most common mistakes people make when using this idiom is mispronouncing or misspelling it. Some people might say “to hell in a hamper” or “to hell in a handbag,” which completely changes the meaning of the phrase. It’s important to use the correct pronunciation and spelling of an idiom to avoid confusion.

Mistake #2: Using the idiom incorrectly

Another mistake people make is using this idiom incorrectly. The phrase means that something is deteriorating rapidly or going downhill quickly. For example, “The company was going to hell in a handbasket after they lost their biggest client.” However, some people might use it in situations where it doesn’t apply, such as saying “I’m going to hell in a handbasket because I forgot my keys.” This usage doesn’t make sense and can be confusing for others.

  • Make sure you’re pronouncing and spelling the idiom correctly.
  • Use the idiom only when it applies.
  • Avoid mixing up idioms with similar-sounding words.

By avoiding these common mistakes, you can ensure that you’re using this popular idiom correctly and effectively conveying your message.


  1. Gary Martin (1997–), “Going to hell in a handbasket”, in The Phrase Finder, retrieved 7 January 2021.
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