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Apple carts, handbaskets, rubbing nickels: Where did these weird phrases come from?

Aug 19, 2016

Time for a little wordplay.

We asked you to send us phrases or terms that you find a little strange so we could have University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan try to track down where they started.

First up: "Don't upset the apple cart," sent in by Robert Kellar.

According to Curzan, "apple cart" was used in the 18th Century to refer to the human body. 

"A 'bread basket' was your stomach, a 'potato trap' was your mouth, and the 'apple cart' was your body," she said. 

To "capsize someone's apple cart" was to knock them down, she told us. From there, Curzan said the meaning morphed from physically knocking someone down to just ruining their plan. 

Next, we've got, "Hell in a handbasket," sent to us by Lisa Allen Kost.

Curzan told us this one goes back to at least 1865. 

"The first written quote we have ... was this concern that these prisoners were going to go to Chicago and kill people, and that they would 'send abolitionists to Hell in a hand basket,'" she said.

But, she added, since the phrase was first written in 1865, it was probably being used for some time before.

"Now, why a handbasket? We don't have a great explanation," she said. "It's alliterative, so that's nice. There were expressions in circulation such as 'go to Heaven in a wheelbarrow,' so, 'go to Hell in a handbasket.'"

Last but not least, "We didn't have two nickels to rub together," sent in by Margaret Farenger.

Curzan told us this one has changed a lot over the years. Throughout the 20th century, just about every small denomination has been swapped into the phrase. At any given time, people bemoaned the lack two pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters or dollars to rub together.

"They're all capturing the same thing, which is that you've only got one of whatever this fairly small amount of money is," Curzan said, "which means you don't have money to throw around, or perhaps even to buy the things you need."

GUEST

Anne Curzan is an English professor at the University of Michigan and host of That's What They Say here on Michigan Radio.

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