When you are between a rock and a hard place it means you’re in a dilemma and even though there are two options available, both options seem bad and undesirable.
Example: Maria was in a car accident. She is okay, but the crash left a big dent in her vehicle and now she has a tough decision to make: She can spend what little money she has on repairs, or she can just drive around with an unsightly dent. Neither option is satisfying to her, so it could be said that she is caught between a rock and a hard place.
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 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.”
- 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—he wants to rake his yard since it is full of leaves, but the only rake he has is in the shed and it has spiders on it.
- Some unexpected guests are arriving at Amy’s house any minute now and her place is in disarray! You could say she is 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 for 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.