In a Pickle (Idiom) – Meaning, Origin


The idiom in a pickle is a phrase in English that means a person is in a difficult situation.

Example: Larry’s house is too warm. He wants to set the air conditioner to a lower temperature, but he knows that doing this will increase his monthly electrical bill. Thus, Larry is in a pickle and is unsure of what to do.

1. Between a rock and a hard place
2. In a jam
3. In a tight spot
4. In hot water

The Origin of “In a Pickle”

The origin of the phrase in a pickle goes back to at least the 17th century. It was utilized in a play called The Tempest by William Shakespeare in 1611. There are two characters in the play, Alonso and Trinculo, who both use the expression while speaking to each other:

Alonso. And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they

Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em? 2355

How camest thou in this pickle?

Trinculo. I have been in such a pickle since I

saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of

my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.”

As I understand it, the meaning of this phrase was different back then. Today, it means “to be in a rough spot,” but in Shakespeare’s play it means “to be drunk.” Accordingly, some modern English translations of this play render what Trinculo said as: “I have been so drunk since I last saw you,” or something along those lines.

So when did this idiom develop its modern meaning? By the looks of it, this happened not long after the Shakespeare play. For example, Samuel Pepys used the phrase in the mid-17th century. He wrote it down in his diary in the year 1660:

“At home with the workmen all the afternoon, our house being in a most sad pickle.”

As you can see in the quote, Pepys describes his house as “being in a most sad pickle.” Is he saying that his house is “drunk”? I don’t think so. Rather, it sounds like he’s saying that his house was in a rough spot. In other words, it was messy.

Anyways, in short, this saying is at least 408 years old.

See More Phrases:

An arm and a leg
In the red
Sayings Starting with “P”

Example Sentences

  • Steve was hungry, so he ordered a pizza. When it arrived, he found himself in a pickle because he couldn’t find his wallet to pay for it.

Similar Example:

  • It will be a cold night and the only blanket available to me at the moment is sitting in my laundry basket. Thus, I’m caught between a rock and a hard place; I can either be cold for the night or I can use the smelly blanket to keep me warm.

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