Quotes Uncovered: Why Go to Hell Via Handbasket?

Eight weeks ago, I invited readers to submit quotations for which they wanted me to try to trace the origins, using The Yale Book of Quotations and more recent research by me. Scores of people have responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a couple per week.

Quotes Uncovered

75 ThumbnailHere are more quote authors and origins Shapiro’s tracked down recently.

Thads asks:

And another pseudo-Twain quote: “Everybody always talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”

The Yale Book of Quotations cites the Hartford Courant, August 24, 1897:

A well-known American writer said once that while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it.

The YBQ then notes:

The “well-known American writer” is usually taken to be Twain, but the writer could also have been Charles Dudley Warner, who was the editor of the Hartford Courant in 1897.

Alexandra Spyker asks:

How about “going to hell in a hand basket”? I have noticed that in Catholic services a basket attached to a long pole is passed via a volunteer reaching across worshipers. Protestants pass a basket from hand to hand — a hand basket. I think I read that the quote may or may not have been from a sermon in the 1800’s. Any ideas of its origin?

Jesse Sheidlower, the North American editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has written on his former “Jesse’s Word of the Day” web site:

Well, you have to get there somehow, don’t you? And a handbasket has the advantage of alliteration, which is always important when it comes to this sort of phrase. … Simple but pungent expressions [like “go to hell”] often develop elaborate variants.

For example, the imprecation “kiss my a–!” can be expanded (from one direction) into “kiss my royal Irish a–!” or (from another) into “kiss my a– in Macy’s window!” Similarly, the expression “go to hell” developed a number of variants describing the conveyance for reaching Pluto‘s realm, and these conveyances don’t necessarily make sense.

Carl Sandburg, writing about the 1890’s, comments that: “The first time I heard about a man ‘going to hell in a hanging basket,’ I did a lot of wondering what a hanging basket is like.”

Whatever a “hanging basket” is, it gives us the alliteration, like such other common examples as “going to hell in a hack” [i.e. a taxicab], “handcart,” and our “handbasket.” Non-alliterating versions include “in a wheelbarrow,” “on a poker,” “in a bucket” ( “But at least I’m enjoying the ride,” as the Grateful Dead say), and “in a basket.”

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


I've heard a modern variation- going to hell on a scholarship. As in, going to college on a scholarship requires you to be very smart or very good at a sport, getting a scholarship to hell would imply you've said something particularly atrocious.


How about "more [X] than you can shake a stick at"? I have heard that it began in prehistoric days, when sticks were used as weapons. Often, when someone threatened you, you could scare them off by simply shaking a stick at them. But if they came with a large marauding band, that was "more people than you could shake a stick at." However, I can't find any documentation on this.

marty isaac

On a recent Curb Your Enthusiasm, Richard Lewis invent claimed he invented "xxxx from hell" ... as in Mother in law from Hell, etc ... i'll give him the benefit of doubt.


My first comment seems to have vanished -- I'll try again.

For "hanging basket", cf. gibbet. It's a form of execution (via a hanging basket) reserved for pirates and similar despicable folk. Officials would hang up the villains to die and leave the body to decay, as a warning to others. It's a particularly nasty way of sending someone to Hell... in a hanging basket.


"Everything in moderation, including moderation" --Oscar Wilde(?)

Every good quote seems to gets attributed to Wilde, so is this legit?

J. Nicol

The quote......"I shall not pass this way again'....was written by a Quaker Minister?.....I would like to know more about him.....and did he write any books worth reading?.........The quote I believe was from a letter he wrote to someone. Thanks for any info....J.Nicol


'I swear upon Zeus that the most outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler'


"Two things are infinite: universe and humain stupidity. But I'm not sure for the universe." (or something approaching, I've always heard it in french, translation is mine).

It is usually assigned to Einstein, what can you say about it?


A hanging basket is a a metal basket lined with moss and then filled with soil and with flowers planted in it. They're fairly common in the UK (along with Cornish pasties). I don't think they've got anything to do with going to hell though.

Thiago Reis

"Hell on a handbasket" refers to the guillotine executions in medieval France. The basket would "receive" the chopped-off head, hence "going to hell on a hand basket".

Matt N

"more [X] than you can shake a stick at"

I have always heard this one as a shepard counting sheep, goats etc. using his crook/ stick, for market purposes. Lots of goats meant more than you could shake a stick at.


"One thing you can say for small children - they don't go around showing off pictures of their grandparents"

I've heard this attributed to Winston Churchill, but I'd be very surprised if that were true.


What is the origin of the phrase "You're a gentleman and a scholar?" Quick searches suggest Shakespeare but we could not confirm...thanks!


cathcher in rye?

Michael Schlussler

Any idea where "The beatings will continue until morale improves" comes from?


I must hear the expression "going to hell in a hand basket" every day or I suspect that no one is on top of the situation!

So much that I had to make a production of it!

Check this out, especially if you need a basket!



"You're a gentleman and a scholar" is actually from the Thesmophoriazusae, written by Aristophanes in BC something in Athens (I think). It's a really funny play, you should read it! But if you just want to see the phrase, go down to line 220 (the numbers are in bold) and you'll see it.



"The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt, the mobs should be forced to work and not depend on government for subsistence."
This topical comment is widely attributed to Cicero (e.g. http://quotationsbook.com/quote/45485/) , and equally widely deemed to be fake...
What do you say?

chris flanagan

I'm a bit late getting into the quote game, but I have long wondered if Winston Churchill penned, as claimed, one of my favorite quotes: "If you are going through hell ... keep going." You could write a column on quotes wrongly attributed to Churchill and I believe this is one of them.
If so, who said it?

Cheers Chris