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To be 'in a pickle' means to be in trouble or a difficult situation. What I'm wondering is, where did the root of this phrase come from and what's its history? Is there a special story that caused this phrase to catch on? Was it someone almost being pickled?

Funny thing is, that I was actually eating a pickle when I thought of this.

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If you find a "special story" that seems to account for a particular strange or entertaining phrase, it is almost always a complete fabrication. There are no doubt a few well-documented cases where a phrase arises from a particular event (and more where it is a "catch-phrase" from a particular entertainment, such as a radio programme). But most such stories circulating on the web have no basis in truth. People invent them for whatever reason (perhaps in good faith) and they get circulated because we love a story, and the truth (often "We just don't know") is not nearly so attractive. – Colin Fine Apr 29 '11 at 12:35
Probably some "silly" Dutchman... : ) – user65320 Feb 10 '14 at 18:23
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Etymonline offers this:

pickle mid-15c., probably from Middle Dutch pekel "pickle, brine," from a Low German root of uncertain origin or meaning (cf. [...] German pökel). [...] Figurative sense of "sorry plight" first recorded 1560s.

The Phrase Finder supplies some background:

The figurative version of the phrase, meaning simply 'in a fix' [...] arrives during the [16th] century. Thomas Tusser's Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, 1573, contains this useful advice:

Reape barlie with sickle, that lies in ill pickle.


There are a few references to ill pickles and this pickle etc. in print in the late 16th century, and Shakespeare was one of the first to use in a pickle, in The Tempest, 1610 [Act V, Scene 1, Line 2354]:

And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded 'em?
How camest thou in this pickle?

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.

Follow the links for additional insight.

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According to Wiktionary it was first used by William Shakespeare and imported from Dutch:


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Leave it to Shakespeare to make something ridiculously odd like this up. – KronoS Apr 28 '11 at 22:13
Get off Shakespeare's case - he wasn't the first. – slam Feb 10 '14 at 22:54
A character called Golding asks a falling-down-drunk friend in 'Eastward Hoe' (1605) 'Fie! fellow Quicksilver, what a pickle are you in?' To which Quicksilver indignantly replies 'Pickle! Pickle in thy throat! Zounds, pickle!' So even then they objected to it as kind of stupid. Or drunks did, anyway. – slam Feb 10 '14 at 23:03

shakespeare first said it. Meaning: a difficult or uncomfortable situation.

In “The Tempest,” King Alonso asks his jester, Trinculo, “How camest thou in this pickle?” (In modern language, “how did you get so drunk?”)

The drunk Trinculo responds, “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last …” (Act 5, Scene 1).

Trinculo’s drinking does cause trouble for him, the way we use the phrase today. Shakespeare’s original intent makes sense though. Many pickling processes use alcohol.

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