Between a Rock And a Hard Place

Meaning:

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.

Example: Maria was in a car accident. Don’t worry, she is okay! However, 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 not spend a dime, but that would mean driving around with an unsightly dent. Either way, both options are undesirable to her, so it could be said that she is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Synonyms / Related Phrases:
1. between the hammer and the anvil
2. in a jam
3. in a pickle
4. in hot water
Being 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 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.”


Sentence Examples

Here are some example sentences for this phrase:

Shorter Example:

  • 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.

Longer Example:

  • 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?

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.

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