In a Pickle (Idiom) – Meaning, Origin


The idiom “in a pickle” is a phrase in English that means someone is in a difficult or undesirable predicament.

Example: Shannon was watching a movie with his friends. The second the film started, he has needed to use the restroom, but he held back from doing so because he didn’t want to miss anything. Now, towards the end of the movie, Shannon is in a pickle—His bladder is at it’s tipping point, but the film is at it’s most exciting part. What will he do?

Similar: in a jam, in a tight spot, in hot water, between a rock and a hard place

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. In the play, there are two characters, 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.”

From what I understand, the meaning of the phrase was different back then. While it currently means “to be in a rough spot,” in Shakespeare’s play the saying 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? This happened not long after the Shakespeare play, by the looks of it. 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.” Clearly, he’s 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 the expression is used today.

Anyways, in short, the origin of this phrase is at least 408 years old.

Example Sentences

  • Steve was hungry, so he ordered some pizza. However, he later found himself in a pickle because after the pizza arrived, he didn’t have any money to pay for it.

Related Examples:

  • This night will be cold and the only thing I have to keep warm is a dirty blanket that’s sitting in my laundry basket. So it seems I’m caught between a rock and a hard place; I can either accept that I’ll be cold for the night, or I can use the smelly blanket to keep me warm.

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