In a Pickle – Meaning, Origin


To be “in a pickle” is to be in a difficult predicament; a mess. It’s being in an undesirable situation.

Example: Shannon borrowed his neighbor’s lawn mower because he needed to cut the grass in his backyard. As he was mowing, he accidentally ran over a rock, and as a result, the mower broke. To make matters worse, Shannon does not have enough money to pay for the damage and his neighbor will be home any minute now! Thus, it could be said that he is in a pickle.

Synonyms / Related Phrases:
In a jam
Between a rock and a hard place
In hot water
In a tight spot

The Origin Of ‘In a Pickle

The phrase ‘in a pickle’ goes back to at least the 1600s. It was utilized in a play known as The Tempest by William Shakespeare in 1611. There are two characters in the play, Alonso and Trinculo, who use the expression while speaking to one another:

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.”

It appears that the meaning for this phrase was different back then. Currently, the saying means “to be in a rough spot,” but in Shakespeare’s play is simply meant “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 the meaning of this idiom develop into what people use today? It looks like it wasn’t long after that 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 from the quote, Pepys describes his house as “being in a most sad pickle.” He’s clearly not using the term to mean his house is “drunk.” Rather, it sounds like he’s saying his house was in a rough spot; it was messy and needed to be cleaned up. This is similar to how this expression is used today.

Anyways, all that said, it looks like this expression is hundreds of years old. Cool!

Example Sentences

  1. Steve ordered some pizza because he was hungry. However, he found himself in a pickle after the pizza arrived and he had no money to pay with.

Note: Phrases is what this site is all about! Did you know, though, that the origins for many sayings cannot be said with a certainty? Indeed, and so in such cases, what’s provided are theories that may be plausible to how a phrase may have originated, but not necessarily so. 
In addition, quotes that contain a particular phrase may be taken from old newspapers, poems, or books that were written centuries ago, but this by no means confirms that the phrase originates from said newspapers, poems, or books. In all likelihood, if an expression is being used in a newspaper, it’s probably already a well known saying and is from an older time.

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