Variations of a proverb: hell in a handbag

Text:  “It’s hotter than Hell in a handbag out here”

Context: My informant –  a senior at the University of Southern California from Indiana – explained to me that this was a saying her mother would always say when the weather was very hot. Her mother was born and raised in Indiana, and while she first heard it from her mom, it is something that is typically said in the state and in the broader Midwest. Her mother explained to her that the phrase comes from Hell being an extremely hot place alongside the feeling of being confined and stuffed into something small, like a handbag. So, if Hell itself is already hot and the landscape is confined to a handbag, then it must be an unbearably hot day if you are using that analogy to describe the weather.

Analysis: When searching “It’s hotter than Hell in a handbag out here” on the Internet, there are phrases that come up similar to it, but not exactly the same. “Going to hell in a handbasket,” “going to hell in a handcart,” “going to hell in a handbag,” and “something being like hell in a handbasket” are all variations of an allegorical locution that has unknown origins and describes a situation heading for disaster (Wikipedia). However, my informant’s mother had her own variation – It’s hotter than Hell in a handbag out here – which she used to describe the weather, not a situation heading for disaster. In the chapter “Riddles and Proverbs” by F. A. de Caro, the author writes that proverbs are ready-made statements that convey a culturally agreed~upon idea which can be used to make a point that may only be made less succinctly and perhaps less clearly and effectively in a speaker’s own words” (185-186). Despite the proverb staying virtually the same, my informant’s mother repurposed it to fit an aspect of her culture. This highlights the fluidity of proverbial language and the ways in which individuals personalize and reinterpret commonly used expressions to fit their own experiences and surroundings. So, while “something being like hell in a handbasket” might sound similar to “it’s hotter than hell in a handbag out here,” the two phrases are interpreted differently based on their respective cultural contexts.


De Caro, F. A.. “Riddles and Proverbs.” In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, edited by Elliot Oring, 175-197. Utah State University Press, 1986.

“To hell in a handbasket,” Wikipedia,