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HARRY and I have been wondering,'' writes Lois Reasoner that Westport, Conn., ''about the beginning of the phrase going come hell in a handbasket. We have actually heard it offered in conversation 5 times in the past couple of months.''

I have actually the vision conjured in my mind the the genial inquisitor of ''60 Minutes,'' count the time his Connecticut next-door neighbors use this phrase, and finally exploding, ''Five! That's it, Lois - roust the end Safire and find the end why.''

Lexicographers call this ''old slang'' - a figure of speech provided by human being who quit picking up the recent slang about two generations ago. Come hell in a handbasket means either ''to one's doom'' or -if used mockingly to describe a little dissipation - just ''mildly indulgent.''

The beginning is believed to be to sky in a handbasket, a locution that dialect Notes spotted in 1913 in Kansas, whereby it to be taken to average ''to have actually a sinecure.'' One who was unique ensconced in an untouchable task was claimed to it is in on the method to sky in a handbasket. When provided in Wisconsin a decade later, the ax was characterized as ''to execute something easily.''


Then the direction changed. The alliteration stayed the same, however the an initial stage of this rocket reduce off and was shed in the sea of archaic phrases; the 2nd stage, v hell substituted for heaven, took united state to where we space today: the meaning is ''to degenerate rapidly; to autumn apart suddenly.'' The final stage? we cannot tell; down the tube in a handbasket uses contemporary surfers' lingo yet lacks the alliterative zing.

What is it about a handbasket - a native rarely offered now exterior the hellish phrase - that provides it so beneficial in speak of decadence, degeneration, declension and also downfall?

The vital quality is portability; the basket is small enough to be lugged in one hand, and anything in it is little or light. Native a couple of centuries after that coinage, words lent chin to belittlement in phrasemaking: in the beat ''Juliana, or the Princess of Poland'' by john Crowne in 1671, a personality says, ''I deserve to see once I see, surely; ns don't carry my eyes in a hand-basket.'' Most human being who use old slang are long in the tooth, a folk an allegory of unsure age first used in publish by wilhelm Makepeace Thackeray in an 1852 novel: ''She was lean, and yellow, and long in the tooth; all the red and white in every the toyshops that London can not make a beauty, beauty of her.''

The hatchet is current: ''For brand-new Yorkers long in the tooth,'' wrote Donal Henahan in a new York Times review of an opera, ' ''Il Pirata' is probably finest recalled as a concert car for Maria Callas. . . .''

The expression was originally used to horses. As a horse ages, the gums recede, do the this look longer; the hatchet as applied to humans as well as horses now method ''aging, gaining on in years, approaching geezerhood,'' and is taken as a slur by anti-agists.


While dishing out this fodder for phrasedicks, ns will now turn to the mysterious dressed come the nines, subject of countless queries.

As artists know, the variety of Muses is nine; some fanciful originicists see that together the resource for the fashion term. A much more respectable etymologist, W. W. Skeat, recalled that the old plural for eye was eyne and also speculated that to the nines was acquired from to then eyne, but at that phase of his life, the was long in the tooth and his occupational was going come hell in a handbasket.


Nine is the greatest single-digit number; it stands for ''the best, the highest, the nearest come perfection.'' In 1787, the poet Robert Burns wrote, '''Twad you re welcome me to the nine.'' The expression up to the nines had this definition of excellence, and in Hotten's 1859 thesaurus of slang was defined as ''up to the dodges and also 'wrinkles' that life'' - what us would currently say is a state ''capable the coping through stress.'' Hotten also included dressed approximately the nines, identified as we use it today: ''in a showy or recherche manner.''

The fashion expression was temporarily replaced in the 1890's v dressed to kill (and also now, women yearn for the drop-dead dress), but numerals have actually largely changed mayhem in dressessment, and dressed come the nines is again with us. I counted that use five times in the past couple of months. I like the old slang.

PROOFREADING

WHEN THE NEWS MEDIA obtain on her case, nothing you execute is right.

Marion Barry Jr., the beleaguered mayor of Washington (I prefer beleaguered, ''besieged by encirclement,'' come the more general embattled, the various other adjective now appended to his title), to be the recipient of a pop very first from City file in Washington and later from The Washington Monthly in the form of the ''Memo that the Month.'' This function presents for public ridicule the best bureaucratic effluvia it have the right to find.

In the present issue, a letter purported to be from mayor Barry come the head of a citizens' combination is pictured, letterhead, signature and also all. Mr. Barry thanks the committee for its ''hands on participation in concerns which result the city . . . .''

The letter writer, trying to be helpful, walk on: ''I am offering you with a copulation of answers come several inquiries raised. . . .''


Lurma Rackley, his press secretary, insists that the letter was all set by who no much longer at the Office of ar Affairs, was never ever sent come the Mayor's office for proofreading or approval, and also was not signed or also read through the Mayor. However having delegated the authority to sign his name, he was responsible for the error.

It wasn't until after the letter was ceded to the citizens' association the the mistake was spotted (not the lack of hyphenation in hands-on, but one that the others) and also sent earlier for revision. As well late; photocopies that the as-delivered initial were sent around to much giggling and snickering.

Proofreading, together this episode shows, is one undervalued endeavor. Never ever trust your very own copy; acquire somebody else to watch over her words v fresh eyes. ''The word us look for most these job is public,'' states the forthright Ms. Rackley. ''The native public is in every other paragraph the every statement, and the l has actually a means of dropping out.''

This item is created in the hope the typographical errors will be forgiven and that the blame for unreviewed letters will certainly not autumn on nonsignatories; that is carried to you together a pubic service.

LAST-MINUTE BLOOPIE ENTRY

PICTURES OF 7 ABC anchors - from Sam Donaldson to Diane Sawyer - are shown in an alphabet ad, through this caption: ''At abc News, we have a singular mission - come report come you what is keep going in the world.''

Singular many often method ''peculiar, eccentric, strange, quaint, exceptional,'' through the slang synonyms ''offbeat, oddball, flaky''; part roundheeled lexicographers include ''unique,'' and also most point out the the word's early definition was the same as single, but few suggest the word can now be used external of first-person singular as a substitute because that single.


ABC cannot mean its journalists have actually a nutty mission, nor have the right to the network be suggesting that it is the just news organization with the mission of report what is keep going in the world. The must median ''only one mission'' or ''a primary mission''; therefore, the word should be single.

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In ''One,'' the final number of ''A Chorus Line'' (which just finished its operation on Broadway), a line defines a dancer this way: ''One singular sensation, every small step that takes. . . .'' One singular might be redundant, but the meaning - ''peculiar, strange, exceptional'' - is correct.