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
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    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
  • I'm fairly sure the original was either "hell in a hand basket" or "hell in a hand cart". gocomics.com/theargylesweater/2011/09/09 – Hot Licks Mar 14 '15 at 18:11

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

As a child, I remember rag and bone men in England in the 1950's would push a handcart. There were different designs of these contraptions, but mainly in the north of England they were pushed rather than pulled. However whether pushed or pulled, the progress of the rag and bone man was very slow as he stopped at each house. Hence, going to Hell slowly (in a handcart). For interest, I remember the call of the rag and bone men, it was almost musical.

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  • Welcome to English Language and Usage. Comments are restricted to the comments section below the question. If you need assistance in drafting an answer, please consult our Help page on "Writing a good answer": – Cascabel Jan 10 '17 at 22:28

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
  • I think part of this answer is at least plausible: carts were used to haul the dead and since mostly each parish had to deal with its dead, the smaller parishes carried the dead by hand. It seems likely to me that the bodies would be carried in a handcart. How would you do it? So the reason the smaller parishes used handcarts, not horse carts, was money. The plague placed a great financial burden on the parishes. – Airymouse Jan 11 '17 at 0:06
  • @tchristThe records of St Bride's also show that St Bride's and St Dunstan's jointly employed a party of bearers from July onwards; and the absence of any later references to carts suggests that bearing was always done on foot in these parishes. Other parishes, especially the larger ones, bought or hired carts as they found necessary. Defoe says that 'the dead carts in the city were not confined to particular parishes, but one cart went through several parishes, according as the number of dead presented, but, if this is so, the means by which this was organized and financed is not clear. – Airymouse Jan 11 '17 at 0:13
  • @tchrist In order to fit within the restrictions of a comment I have edited the above blurb without indicating where I have left out information. But you can read the whole article by Googling Burial of the plague dead. I should have put in quotation marks; I hope it's clear that I am quoting what appears to me to be a scholarly source. – Airymouse Jan 11 '17 at 0:22

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