The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” means that you’re in a tough spot, and the two available options are both bad. To put it another way, it’s being in a dilemma where the only choices you have are unsatisfactory.
Example: Maria has found herself between a rock and a hard place because of the large dent in her vehicle. She can either spend what little money she has on repairs, or the alternative is driving around with an unsightly dent. Neither option is great for her, so you could say she’s in a pickle.
1. In a jam
2. In a pickle
3. In hot water
The Origin of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”
It’s believed that the idiom between a rock and a hard place originated in the United States. According to The Phrase Finder, the earliest known citation of this idiom being used is from the year 1921, in the Dialect Notes V where it reads:
“To be between a rock and a hard place . . . To be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.”
Based on this quote, the expression seems to have specifically meant ‘being bankrupt’ at that time. That is different than its meaning today, which is ‘being in a dilemma.’
So when did this phrase start to be used with its modern meaning? The earliest I could find it in print with such a definition is from The Advertiser newspaper, 1930, where it reads:
“After that we were between a rock and a hard place. There was a lot of unpleasantness with Mr. Romanes, but by and by we see’d we couldn’t do nothing by fighting each other, so we shared out the grub, and took what we each thought was the best road off . . . mantelpiece.”
- He is stuck between a rock and a hard place because he can’t decide if he should eat the leftover spaghetti in the fridge, or the pizza he ordered last night.
- Mike is between a rock and a hard place as he wants to rake his yard that is full of leaves, but the only rake he has is sitting in the corner of the shed and it’s covered with webs and spiders.
- Some unexpected guests are showing up any minute and my place is in disarray! You could say I’m in a jam.
- I left food on the floor last night and now I’m in a pickle because there are ants all over it!
Note:The origin of some sayings and phrases are not known. However, it’s possible to get an idea on how old they are by finding old quotes of them in print. Take this phrase for example, its earliest known appearance in print is 1921, so that means it’s at least 100 years old.