The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” is a proverb that means a person is in a dilemma and the only available options they have are unsatisfying or bad.
Example: Maria was in a car accident. While she is okay, the crash left a big dent on her vehicle. She now has to a tough decision to make: She can spend what little money she has to have it repaired, or she can leave it alone and just drive around with an unsightly dent. Either way, both options are undesirable, so it could be said that Maria is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Similar: between the hammer and the anvil, in a jam, in a pickle, 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, 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.”
This phrase is similar to other idioms such as “being in a jam” and “being in a pickle.” Here are a couple sentence examples for it:
- Should I eat the leftover spaghetti or pizza in the fridge? It’s a tough choice! To use a proverb, I guess you could say I’m caught between a rock and a hard place.
- Regrettably, Mike has accidentally set up an important doctor’s appointment on the same day as his son’s first soccer game at school! He’s now stuck between a rock and a hard place. Will he cancel the doctor’s appointment, or will he miss his son’s first soccer game?
Note: The origin of some sayings and phrases are not known. However, you can still get an idea for how old they. How? Because the quotes on the idiom’s page are typically the oldest I can find. Take this phrase for example. The earliest appearance of it in print is 1921, so we know it’s at least about 100 years old.