Today’s fine eggcorn

From the (Palo Alto) Daily News of October 4th, this letter from Tejinder Uberoi of Los Altos:

Unconcerned that the nation is going to hell in a hen basket, the tired old men of the Republican Party are circling the wagons in a last-ditch effort to defund the Affordable Care Act.

Hen basket (or henbasket) for handbasket (or hand basket), making somewhat more sense of an opaque idiom (opaque for people who aren’t familiar with the compound handbasket) whose only virtue appears to be its alliteration; well, you collect eggs in a basket. Still, such a basket is awfully small for going to hell in, as is a handbasket.

The eggcorn isn’t in the Eggcorn Database; in fact, it hasn’t even come up in Eggcorn Forum discussion. But there are plenty of examples. Two more with hen basket, then two with henbasket:

UMMM hello this is illegal for #1, secondly if everyone felt the way you apparently do then the world would go to hell in a hen basket. (link)

the alcoholic bitch can get drunk on her ass like the home town Sheriff did and go to hell in a hen basket. (link)

I am hoping that the sinking ship continues to sink and all the blood sucking greedy bastards go broke and then go to hell in a henbasket. (link)

But if nothing gets done, do we just let the rest of the world go to hell in a henbasket?? (link)

As for the standard version of the idiom, there is actually a Wikipedia page:

“Going to hell in a handbasket”, “going to hell in a handcart”, “going to hell in a handbag”, “sending something to hell in a handbasket” and “something being like hell in a handbasket” are variations on an American alliterative locution of unclear origin, which describes a situation headed for disaster inescapably or precipitately.

Unclear origin, indeed. Here’s Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words (1/19/99) on the subject:

This is a weird one. It’s a fairly common American expression, known for much of the twentieth century. But it’s one about which almost no information exists, at least in the two dozen or so reference books I’ve consulted. William and Mary Morris, in their Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, confess to the same difficulty. A handbasket is just a basket to be carried in the hand (my thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary for that gem of definition). The Dictionary of American Regional English records to go to heaven in a handbasket rather earlier than the alternative, which doesn’t appear in print until the 1940s (Walt Quader tells me that Burton Stevenson included a citation in his Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases from Bayard Kendrick’s The Odor of Violets, published in 1941). But DARE quotes a related expression from 1714: “A committee brought in something about Piscataqua. Govr said he would give his head in a Handbasket as soon as he would pass it”, which suggests that it, or at least phrases like it, have been around in the spoken language for a long time. For example, there’s an even older expression, to go to heaven in a wheelbarrow, recorded as early as 1629, which also meant “to go to hell”. I can only assume that the alliteration of the hs has had a lot to do with the success of the various phrases, and that perhaps handbasket suggests something easily and speedily done.

Studying word and phrase origins is often a frustrating enterprise.

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