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I can understand the meaning of the phrase off to hell..., but I was wondering why, of all the possible vehicles that may have been chosen, it came to be in a handcart?

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My mom used to incorrectly use "hell in a ham basket." I didn't realize until college that it was the wrong phrasing! –  user13714 Oct 8 '11 at 0:42
    
Are you sure you weren't mishearing hand basket? –  Marthaª Oct 8 '11 at 1:09
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My favorite variant is "Where am I and why am I in this handbasket?" –  Marthaª Oct 8 '11 at 1:10
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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This is mainly due to the alliteration of the phrase:

"Going to hell in a handbasket", "going to hell in a handcart","going to hell on a Harley", "going to hell in a handbag" and '"sending something to hell in a handbasket" are variations on an American alliterative locution of unclear origin, which describes a situation headed for disaster without effort or in great haste.

You can see that all of the objects above begin with the letter h. To say "going to hell in a VW" or "going to hell in an ice cream truck" would have less impact.

Pithy sayings of this sort often involve either alliteration or rhyme ("In like Flynn," "wake and bake"), which give them a tag-like quality that's easy to remember and rhetorically more emphatic.

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Thank you, Robusto. I suspected that might be the reason; I can't think of any other vehicle from the year dot that begins with 'h'. –  Brian Hooper Mar 6 '11 at 10:51
    
@BrianHooper: a horse buggy? –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 6 '12 at 0:12
    
A more modern (and fitting, some would argue) variant might be ‘to hell in a Hummer’. Lords knows those things are hell. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 16 '13 at 20:21
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To hell in a handcart refers to the Great Plague in London. The dead were left in the street in the 1600's and were collected by a bailiff who did not risk horses so used a handcart like a wheelboro to transport them to a common grave.

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Do you have a reference on this? –  tchrist Jul 16 '13 at 20:30
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This has all the hallmarks of urban legend/folk etymology. To start with, horses are immune to human diseases like plague. –  Marthaª Jul 16 '13 at 20:32
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