Between a rock and a hard place is a phrase that means a person is in a dilemma and even though they have two options available, both options are bad or unattractive.
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 may have meant ‘to be bankrupt’ at that time. That is different than it’s 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.”
Here are some example sentences for this phrase:
- Should I eat the leftover spaghetti in the fridge, or the pizza I ordered last night? I can’t decide, so I guess you could say I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.
- Mike inadvertently set up an important doctor’s appointment on the same day as his son’s first soccer game at school! Now he is between a rock and a hard place—will he cancel the doctor’s appointment, or will he miss his son’s first soccer game?