"Hell in a Handbasket"

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Nov 27 02:26:27 UTC 2003

I stumbled across the following article on Nexis, shedding some historical
light on the prehistory of the phrase "going to hell in a handbasket":

The Spectator
February 16, 2002


HEADLINE: Mind your language;

BYLINE: Dot Wordsworth

WHY do we say 'Go to hell in a handcart'? Alastair Laing, the art
historian, asked himself the question, and he writes confessing that the
trail of his investigations has gone cold.

As Mr Laing points out, the first citation of the word handcart in the OED
is from 1810. That does not mean it was unknown before then, merely that
none earlier appeared in the collection of six million quotations that
volunteers gathered for the dictionary.

I do not suppose many people were looking especially, or that anyone has
made much of an effort since. Computers ought to help with these matters
once enough texts have been input.

But a semantic equivalent to our mysterious phrase appears in a source
quoted in the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (as the thorough Mr Laing has

It is from a sermon of 1626 by Thomas Adams, whom I find Robert Southey
called 'the prose Shakespeare of Puritan theologians'. Adams published a
'massive folio' of his sermons in 1629, and an augmented collection came
out in 1862.

If I had these I might, though I doubt it, be able to understand what he
means by the following: 'This oppressor must needs go to heaven. . . . But
it will be, as the byword is, in a wheelbarrow: the fiends, and not the
angels, will take hold on him.' I can see that 'Go to heaven in a
wheelbarrow' means the same as 'Go to hell in a handcart', but I do not
see why wheelbarrows are susceptible to fiends .

Mr Laing suggests that handcart or wheelbarrow is the equivalent of
hell-cart, which is a name given in the early 17th century to a carriage
used by prostitutes.

(These women are termed meritoriae by one source in the 1630s, a word of
long history parallel to meretrix, rendered, lest there be any doubt, in
Bailey's edition (1828) of the learned Facciolatus as 'harlot, prostitute,
whore, strumpet, courtesan, quean, punk'. ) The word Helcarte-Coaches is
incorporated into verse by John Taylor, who styled himself the Water Poet
from his profession as a Thames waterman. (This seemed to have given him
much opportunity for composition; the Dictionary of National Biography
devotes nine columns to listing his works. ) The suggestion is ingenious,
but I cannot see that in 1626 even the Shakespeare of Puritan theologians
could have confused a wheelbarrow with a tarty carriage.

If anyone can supply a convincing, well-sourced origin for 'Go to hell in
a handcart', both Mr Laing and I would be interested to know it.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at yale.edu               http://quotationdictionary.com

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