Last week my daughter was on a cruise and sent us a card which on the cover boldly proclaimed “I Went to I would agree with your interpretationHell in a Handbasket!” We both loved it and laughed. Then it got me wondering, where do all these old slang phrases come from and what are they supposed to mean? I set out in search of some similar old phrases and their derivations. Here’s what I found:
Hell in a handbasket or going to hell in a handbasket means deteriorating rapidly, a situation when a complete ruin or failure is inevitable. If someone uses this phrase, they want to say the situation is getting quickly out of hand and going downhill rapidly. The origin of this expression came into general use during the American Civil War. While you can see why “hell” is used in the phrase, the reason for “handbasket” is a bit unclear.
Similar phrases such as “going to heaven in a wheelbarrow” and “head in a headbasket” may give a clue. The first one ironically meant “going to hell,” and the latter depicts the execution by the guillotine during the French Revolution when people’s heads were dropped into a basket. However, “handbasket” is most likely used because of alliteration, representing something easily and quickly done. Other similar expressions with alliteration include “going to hell in a handbag” and “going to hell in a handcart,” but they are not as popular as “going to hell in a handbasket.”
What does an elephant in the room mean? What is it even doing in the room and how did it get there? When someone pulls wool over your eyes, what should you do? And why does a fat chance and a slim chance mean the same thing? Let’s find out:
1. Cold turkey; Can you imagine the damp, goose bumpy skin of a cold turkey? Makes you shudder, doesn’t it? It has something to do with the dark meaning behind this expression. When you abruptly quit an addiction such as smoking, caffeine, drugs or alcohol, users report feeling that awful situation as described above. Thus, the expression cold turkey.
2. Hold your horses; When someone bellows at you to hold your horses, don’t go around, panic-stricken, looking for a horse to hold. It simply means you need to stay put or slow down. This phrase has been used as early as Homer’s Iliad. It’s a way of telling someone to stop or slow down.
3. The elephant in the room; There’s an elephant in the room but nobody seems to be talking about it. Awkward, right? There’s a fable written in the early 1800s where a man went to a museum and noticed all the tiny things but failed to see the huge elephant in the room. The fable was called The Inquisitive Man which has been referenced later on by famous writers such as Dostoevsky, among others. Now the expression is being used to refer to a huge problem that everyone refuses to talk about.
4. Get someone’s goat; When you get (or steal) a goat owned by somebody else, of course that person would get mad. But the origin of this idiom is far more interesting than that. This expression actually comes from horse-racing where goats are used to have a calming effect on thoroughbred horses. To calm down an easily upset horse, its owner would place a goat in its stall the night before the race. But some opponents would cheat by stealing the goat to agitate the horse and make it lose the race! Thus, the intended meaning: To upset, irritate or anger someone.
5. Earworm; You’ve tried it before, I’m sure of it. You listen to a song and suddenly it’s stuck in your mind. It seems to be playing on repeat in your head like a pesky background music to all your thoughts. It’s like a worm in your ear singing the song on repeat for hours, days, and even weeks! Help! You’ve got an earworm! A catchy song or tune that you can’t seem to get out of your head.
6. Have (or get) your ducks in a row; There are plenty of origin stories behind this idiom--from little ducklings following their mother in a tidy little line, to bowling pins, metal ducks in a shooting arcade, and so many other possible sources. The cutest and the earliest usage seems to come from the first one: little ducklings sorted in a straight line behind their mother. So, I guess we’ll have to go with that. Meaning: Get everything organized, straightened up and accounted for before embarking on an activity or project.
7. Eager beaver; Are beavers really eager animals? Not necessarily. But this phrase came to be, simply because of the catchy rhyme. Meaning: An overly enthusiastic person; someone who is overzealous and excited about doing a job.
8. Running around like a headless chicken; Now that paints a bizarre picture alright. But did you know that when a chicken’s head is chopped off, it still runs about in a panic for a couple of seconds or so before dying? Morbid, I know. But that’s the origin of this expression. Meaning: To run around doing a lot of things in a disorganized, ineffective manner.
9. The tail wagging the dog; It’s always the dog that wags its tail. So, what’s up with this idiom? How does a tail wag the dog? This expression comes from a popular phrase that says: “a dog is smarter than its tail, but if the tail were smarter, then the tail would wag the dog “. A shorter version of this phrase is “wag the dog” which means to divert attention to a less important issue in order to get away with a bigger issue. Meaning: A situation wherein a smaller or less important group appears to control a larger or more important person or organization.
10.Turn turtle; Ever seen an upside-down turtle helplessly trying to get back on its feet? That’s the imagery this idiom wants to depict. Meaning: To flip over; to turn upside down.
11.Monkey business; What types of businesses are monkeys involved in? Apparently, nothing but shenanigans! This idiom is based on the playfulness of monkeys. Meaning: shenanigans; activities that could be considered mischievous, questionable or even illegal; antics that are generally disapproved of.
12.Cock and bull story; What does a cock and a bull have in common? Well, they both have a story, albeit an improbable one. This idiom has been around for centuries (the 1600s to be exact) and still used today.
There are a bunch of sources credited for the origin of this expression: First from a popular watering hole (meaning bar – hey here’s another idiom I didn’t even think about 😊). Anyway, this bar was called The Cock and The Bull where people trade stories that become more and more unlikely, as they become more and more inebriated. It may also come from the French expression coq-a-l’âne which means cock and jackass/ cock and bull. Whatever the origin is, it’s most likely another cock and bull story! Meaning: A story that is unlikely to be true. Usually boastful or used as an excuse.
13.Watering hole: Since I just mentioned this one, I probably should explain it; A watering hole was originally "a source of water from which animals regularly drink," but sometime in the 1960s it came to primarily mean "place (for humans) to socialize over drinks." A spa near the sea is also sometimes called a watering hole.
14.More holes than a Swiss cheese; Not all Swiss cheeses have holes in it, but apparently, this is what mostly everyone thinks of when we think of Swiss cheese (blame it on the cartoons we saw in our youth). So, if an argument or a story has more holes than this, it’s definitely got a lot of issues. Meaning: Something that has a lot of faults and problems.
15.Best thing since sliced bread; When a bread slicing machine was introduced in the 1920s, it was considered “the greatest forward step in the baking industry”. So, this phrase was born and used humorously to hype up something new and innovative. Meaning: Used to show one’s enthusiasm about a person, thing or idea; to hype up a certain thing as a great invention or innovation.
16.A hot potato; Who wants to hold a hot potato? Nobody. Everyone would just drop it. So is a figurative hot potato. It’s a topic no one wants to touch! Meaning: A controversial issue that nobody wants to discuss because it is uncomfortable to talk about it.
17.Couch potato; Another potato idiom, but this time one that’s in front of a TV with a bowl of chips in hand. It’s a couch potato! Meaning: A person who does not lead an active life and would rather stay on the couch, watching TV.
18.Go bananas; This American slang can be used to pertain to different kinds of extreme emotions such as wild excitement, over-the-top happiness, or even in some cases (but less common), anger. This idiom got its inspiration from apes who go crazy when given bananas. Meaning: To go wild, to go crazy with excitement or other extreme emotions.
19.Take with a grain (or pinch) of salt; Why not a handful of salt or a spoonful, you ask? Well, early texts contain an antidote to poison which says “take with a grain of salt”. The expression remains, but now it’s used to advise someone not to swallow an idea fully. Take it with a grain of salt: consume it but with a healthy dose of skepticism. Meaning: to accept something but with a degree of skepticism.
20.Pie in the sky; You’re lying down in the grass looking up when suddenly a pie comes floating in the sky! Cool! You’re probably just daydreaming or hallucinating. It’s a nice idea to think about though highly unlikely. That’s what this idiom is all about. Meaning: Something nice but unlikely to happen. An empty wish.
21.Everything but the kitchen sink; When you’ve taken everything but the kitchen sink, you’ve likely taken the entire contents of your house! Meaning: Almost everything imaginable, even the unnecessary things.
22.A wet blanket; A wet blanket can be effective in dousing a fire in the same way that a figurative wet blanket is very effective in dampening an otherwise happy occasion. Meaning: A person who spoils all the fun by disapproving of the activities. Someone who dampens everybody’s enthusiasm.
23.By the skin of your teeth; Does your skin even have teeth? Kind of weird, I know. But this phrase actually originated from the Bible, in the Book of Job: ‘My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth’ (19:20). Meaning: narrowly, barely, or by a very small margin
24.Go belly up; Ever had a pet fish while you were a kid? You probably noticed that when it died it went belly up. So, there you go with this idiom. Meaning: to fail; to go bankrupt.
25.Armed to the teeth; Now let’s talk about teeth again. Remember those movies where you’d see pirates biting into their knives? That’s one of the possible origins of this expression. Another one is that of knights covered in armor from head to foot, fully armed to the teeth. Meaning: Heavily armed or well-equipped, could be with literal weapons or figuratively well-prepared.
26.Wet behind the ears; What’s being wet behind the ears got to do with being inexperienced? Well, let me break it down for you. According to this idiom’s origin, it is based on the idea that newborn animals are totally wet from the amniotic sac during birth. The mother would then proceed to lick the baby animal thoroughly, but the indentation behind the ears (usually with a baby calf) would still be wet. Meaning: Used to describe someone inexperienced or immature.
27.Burst at the seams; There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter movies where Harry inflates his mean Aunt Marge and her clothes literally burst at the seams. That would be a perfect literal example of this idiom. But figuratively? It just means to be beyond full! Meaning: To be filled beyond regular capacity
28.Elvis has left the building; Elvis was one of those people in history that people went crazy over. After his shows, people would still mill about, waiting for an encore or even just a little extra glimpse. To signal that everything’s over and the show is done, the announcer would say “Elvis has left the building”. These words stuck and became a well-used expression even if Elvis has already left--not just the building--but this Earth as well. Meaning: Means the show or event has ended.
29.Fat chance / slim chance; You’d know a language is weird when two opposing phrases mean the exact same thing. Well, that’s the English language for you. Fat chance involves sarcasm though, so saying that means its opposite---or ‘slim chance’-- is true. Meaning: There’s a very little chance of that happening.
30.Thick as thieves; Thieves are supposedly notorious for sharing secrets with each other. Who else understands a thief but another thief, right? And in the old days, thick can also mean to be very close. So, there you go. Meaning: Two or more people who are very close and share secrets to each other.
Son of a gun, those were fun! There are hundreds of these idioms or what many call old slang terms. Many just seem quite common and most know their meaning. But every once in a while, a Hell in a Handbasket comes along. I hope you enjoyed these and you won’t be stealing anyone’s thunder if you come up with some real whoppers, you can throw my way - just drop me a line.