Being in a dilemma where the only two available options are both unsatisfying or bad.
Example: Maria was in a car accident. There were no injuries, but the crash did leave a big dent on the side of her vehicle. Maria now had to make a tough choice: She could either spend what little money she had in order to have her car repaired, or she could leave it alone and just drive around with a big unsightly dent in her vehicle. The choice was a difficult one, thus it could be said that Maria was between a rock and a hard place.
The Origin of ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’
It’s believed that this phrase 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, it looks like the expression meant ‘to be bankrupt’ at that time. This differs from the way it’s used today, which is ‘being in a dilemma.’
So then, when did this phrase start to be used with its modern meaning? The earliest I could it in print 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.”
- Mike had made some scheduling errors, and so now he found himself stuck between a rock and a hard place. He could either miss his doctor’s appointment that he’s been waiting weeks for, or miss his son’s first soccer game at school.
Note: The origin of some sayings and phrases are not known. However, you can still get an idea for how old an expression is by looking at how far back in history it goes. You can do this by looking at the idiom’s page on here, and then checking for the quotes that contain the expression.
These quotes are typically the oldest known citations of it, or at least, the oldest that I could find. So, for example, if you see a phrase being quoted in a newspaper from the 1950s, then you know it is at least that old.