Dear Matthew: Where the heck did the phrase “going to hell in a handbasket” come from? It doesn’t make sense to us and has been bad for business. — Handbasket Makers of America, La Jolla
Dear Mr. M.A.: When we cooingly take unsuspecting Fifi or Fido off to the vet to get them “fixed, ” why do we call it getting them fixed, when actually we’re getting them broken? — David, San Diego
“Broken” only from the pet’s point of view, I guess. “Fixed” if you don’t want to be overrun by kittens and puppies. But nobody seems to care as much as you do about the origin. Solid info is hard to come by. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes D.H. Lawrence from 1930 to illustrate one of the earliest uses of “fix,” in your sense. “ ‘Is he a gentleman or a lady?’ ‘Neither, my dear, I had him fixed! It saves him from so many undesirable associations.’ ” An early 20th-century euphemism? Looks like it.
But we have some good news for you handbasket makers. The original place people were inclined to go in a handbasket was heaven. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the expression “to go to heaven in a handbasket” was popular in the upper Midwest in the 19-teens, and it meant to have it made, to have your future secured, or something that is easy to do. (A handbasket is any small basket with an arched handle that, with its contents, can be carried easily in one hand.) Within a few decades, the expression spread to the East Coast and transformed itself into “going to hell in a handbasket,” hell apparently being a more common destination for the average New Yorker.