Answer Man

Answer Man: If you’re going to hell, why in a handbasket?

Q. If someone’s life is starting to rapidly deteriorate, he or she sometimes is said to be “going to hell in a handbasket.” Why a handbasket?

— Tom Westerheide, of Belleville

A. Quite possibly because whoever first used the phrase simply thought it had a catchy sound.

I know that’s not a terribly satisfying answer, but people love using alliteration — the practice stringing together words that start with the same sound. It’s perhaps why we ask whether an object is “bigger than a breadbasket.” Why breadbasket? It sounds neat. Or why we love to invent equally nonsensical tongue twisters like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

That’s not to say there aren’t other explanations that seem to have some logic. If you’ve watched typical Hollywood costume dramas, you’ve probably seen the heads of prisoners plopping into a basket when they are guillotined. Assuming they were guilty and unrepentant, they presumably went straight to hell even as their heads were being carted off in that handbasket.

The trouble with this theory, however, is that the phrase apparently first popped up in the 1850s in the United States, not during the 18th-century French Revolution in which heads rolled like dice in Las Vegas. Experts looking for a more solid answer also say it’s not commonly heard outside our shores.

However, they admit, the seeds for the phrase may have been planted on foreign soil. In 1618, for example, English preacher Thomas Adams in his book “God’s Bounty on Proverbs” refers to “going to heaven in a wheelbarrow” — a popular euphemism for “going to hell.”

For centuries, the idea of sinners being wheeled into the underworld was a popular one. In fact, there’s a stained-glass window at the Fairford Church of St. Mary in Gloucestershire, England, that shows a woman being carried off in a wheelbarrow pushed by a blue devil. (See it at www.soniahalliday.com/category-view3.php?pri=1701-5-44.jpg.) If you search long enough, you can find the equally alliterative phrase “going to hell in a handcart.”

But the closest thing to “handbasket” in print first came in a diary entry by Samuel Sewall, who eventually regretted his role as a judge at the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. While describing a statesman mulling over a proposal, Sewall wrote in 1714 that the official eventually said he would rather “give his head in a handbasket” than approve it.

How that became “going to hell in a handbasket (or the less-popular handbag)” remains open to speculation. It apparently began popping up about the time of the Civil War. In 1867, a document printed by the U.S. House of Representatives, offered these comments from one-time Chicago Mayor — and Confederate sympathizer — Buckner Stith Morris:

“Speaking of men who had been arrested, (Morris) said, ‘Thousands of brave men, at this very moment in Camp Douglas, are our friends; who, if they were once at liberty, would send the abolitionists to hell in a handbasket.” (Camp Douglas was a Confederate POW camp in Chicago.)

Apparently, Morris and others liked the clever mix of h’s, believing it sounded more dire than simply going to hell. However, maybe it’s time for an update. Gary Martin, the Phrase Finder, suggests we try “going to hell in a hovercraft” and see if it flies.

Q. I didn’t see anything about the death of Jimmy Dickens in your paper. Can you tell me a little about him?

— L.D., of Red Bud

A. He may have stood only 4-foot-11, but Little Jimmy Dickens was a giant when it came to leaving a smile on his legions of country music fans.

In the late 1930s, the youngest of his family’s 13 children was attending West Virginia University when he became hooked on a music career while performing on WJLS in Beckley, W.Va. Then, in 1948, country great Roy Acuff heard him perform in Saginaw, Mich. Acuff took him to Columbia Records and the Grand Ole Opry, launching his 75-year career in earnest.

Soon his novelty songs were helping him stand tall amongst his country brethren, including “Take an Old, Cold Tater (and Wait),” “I’m Little But I’m Loud,” “Out Behind the Barn” and, of course, his big No. 1 from 1965, “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.”

By 2009, he was the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry, where he told audiences he was known as “Willie Nelson after taxes.” Never too old for a joke, he dressed as Justin Bieber for the 2011 CMA Awards and joked about Bieber’s paternity scandal.

But last Christmas, six days after celebrating his 94th birthday at the Opry, he suffered a stroke and died Jan. 2. He is survived by his third wife, Mona, and two daughters.

Today’s trivia

What president loved to cook soup at the White House — and eventually was buried in an $80 casket?

Answer to Tuesday’s trivia: While bingeing last weekend on “Hill Street Blues” episodes (the entire series is finally out on DVD), I stumbled upon this fascinating factoid: As a running back at Cornell University, actor Ed Marinaro (aka Officer Joe Coffey) became the first Division I player in NCAA history to rush for more than 4,000 yards in just three seasons. From 1969 to 1971, he racked up 4,715 rushing yards and set 15 other NCAA records, including a career average of 174.6 yards per game and a season record of 1,881 yards in his final year, when he finished second in the Heisman voting to Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan by just 152 points. A second round draft choice by Minnesota, Marinaro played six years with the Vikings, Jets and Seahawks before moving to Hollywood, where the 64-year-old is reprising his role as Coach Marty Daniels in an upcoming movie version of “Blue Mountain State.” His NCAA rushing record was soon eclipsed by two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin, who ran for 5,589 yards from 1972-75 at Ohio State.

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