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What is the origin and definition of the expression "caught between a rock and a hard place"? I also heard it in a situation where it could have had a jocose double sense, but I may have misunderstood.

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  • Yesterday I got my snowblower jammed between my van and a bank of hardened snow. Not exactly a rock and a hard place, but pretty close.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 18:35
  • Can you link to the stories posted that you've seen already so we know what you're dismissing?
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 19:21
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    See the Online Etymology Dictionary and The Phrase Finder. Your reference to "origin stories" and the "English Bible" is unclear. Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 19:35
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    Have you considered its potential origin in Homer's Odyssey, given its parallel with the expression between Scylla and Charybdis? Scylla was a rock shoal (the "rock") and Charybdis a whirlpool (the "hard place") in the Strait of Messina, the two being represented as sea-monsters in Greek myth. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 2:34

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The expression is used when there is a dilemma or only two equally difficult decisions. It can be implied where there is a mandatory to make a choice between at least two unpleasant choices.

The origin, according to Phrases Dictionary, is derived from an economic issue where workers face underpaid wages ( a rock) and unemployment (hard place). The full version of the story can be found in the reference.

Other origin worths mentioned is the Greek mythology "Between Scylla and Charybdis", where Odysseus has to take a route between six-headed monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis. For further reading on Wikipedia.

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    There's also between the devil and the deep blue sea, of course. Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 21:13
  • I'll go with the diablo, I'm not much of a swimmer :)
    – Jamie
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 21:31
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    Except I believe in this case the devil isn't Old Nick himself - it's supposed to be a nautical term for the seam between the deck planking and the topmost plank of the ship's side. Whatever, I'd rather steer clear of all of them! Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 21:41
  • +1 for the link, though I don't find it's reasoning all that convincing.
    – user1579
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 0:39
  • @FumbleFingers: no, you're confusing your etymythologies. The OED gives no meaning of "devil" as a seam of a ship, but it does mention the suggestion that "the devil to pay" refers to such a seam, though it says that "there is no evidence that this is the original sense". It mentions nothing of the sort in relation to your expression. All in all, "between the devil and the deep (blue) sea" is so transparently graphic that without strong contrary evidence I would be ready to dismiss any allusive explanation as completely fanciful.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jul 5, 2011 at 15:41
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According to phrases.org.uk:

The earliest known printed citation of 'between a rock and a hard place' is in the American Dialect Society's publication Dialect Notes V, 1921:

"To be between a rock and a hard place, ...to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California."

The 'recent panics' referred to in that citation are undoubtedly the events surrounding the so-called US Bankers' Panic of 1907. This financial crisis was especially damaging to the mining and railroad industries of the western states.

More information on the concept of "between X and Y" is found on Wiktionary:

Related to the concept of the Ancient Greeks: "between Scylla and Charybdis." [...]

I therefore highly doubt it has much to do with the bible, but I must confess I haven't checked.

Hope this has been helpful.

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The Bisbee Deportation, 17 July 1917

The UK website phrases.org offers an initially attractive aetiological narrative for the expression between a rock and a hard place/spot with the original meaning ‘bankrupt’: the banking crisis of 1907, which is tied to a comment in Dialect Notes vol. 5 (1921) that the expression was “common in Arizona in recent panics.”

In 1917 the lack of funding precipitated by the earlier banking crisis led to a dispute between copper mining companies and mineworkers in Bisbee, Arizona. The workers, some of whom had organized in labour unions, approached the company management with a list of demands for better pay and conditions. These were refused and subsequently many workers at the Bisbee mines were forcibly deported to New Mexico.

Orchestrated by the Phelps Dodge Corporation, owner of a number of copper mines in the area, the Bisbee Deportation, 17 July 1917, was the abduction at gunpoint of around 2,000 striking miners and others, who were assembled in front of the post office and marched to a baseball field a mile or so away. Rank and file miners, but not organizers, were offered the choice of renouncing the union. Some 700 did so. The remaining 1,286 were immediately forced onto filthy cattle cars — in mid-90° heat — and shipped off to Tres Hermanas NM, 200 miles and 16 hours away, on the Mexican border.

Now the suggestion that a mining company that could arrange a posse of 2000, furnish some of them with machine guns, and hire 23 El Paso and Southwestern cattle cars on a moment’s notice is somehow suffering from a loss of capital because of a financial crisis ten years before borders on the absurd. This, however, is how Phrases.org wants to get from bankrupt to Bisbee.

Though hardly sympathetic to the miners’ cause, the federal government intervened, moving the men to nearby Columbus and housing them in tents originally intended for Mexican nationals fleeing Pancho Villa. Although an end date in mid-September was planned, many of the forced deportees were still in the camp in October 1917, when they petitioned the federal government for assistance to return to their homes.

“Somewhere in France,” 9 Nov. 1918

If these miners, mostly destitute and with only their clothes on their backs, were the source of the expression, then between a rock and a hard place was on a tight schedule to reach other American speakers, even one in the same state.

A farmer from Mountainair NM, 100 km SSE of Albuquerque (1920 pop. 577), Sgt. Jason “Bud” C. Williams wrote a letter to his family dated 9 Nov. 1918 from “somewhere in France,” the vague location required by Army censors. The letter was then published in the local newspaper the following month:

Seeing from the papers, that we have the Central Power bunch between a rock and a hard place, I am afraid that the hard place will get harder than the rock if Fritz don’t wake up and get out while he is yet breathing. — The Mountainair Independent (NM), 19 Dec. 1918.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had abdicated that very day, apparently decided he preferred breathing and went into self-exile in the Netherlands. The armistice ending the war was signed just two days later.

So when could Sgt. Williams have heard the expression, used it himself, at the same time changing its meaning from bankruptcy to what it generally means today: trapped with either no options or only bad ones?

Writing from Camp Mabry, Austin TX, on 10 June 1918, Williams and eight other enlistees thanked the town of Estancias NM for the nice send-off and especially the ladies of the Red Cross for the “many good smokes and good things to eat” they had given them for their rail journey to Texas.

If the scenario concocted by Phrases.org is accurate, then one of the destitute miners, sometime after Sept.–Oct. 1917, made his way north from Columbus NM to a tiny farming community square in the middle of the state, where Williams heard the expression in the eight months or so before he left for Texas.

I would suggest instead that neither Sgt. Williams nor his hypothetical miner was responsible for the expression, but that it was already part of the soldier’s idiolect before his enlistment. A provenance in early 20th c. America, likely in the Southwest, is probably as close as we can get. As for the ascription in Dialect Notes of ‘bankruptcy’: bankrupt businesses and private persons may well have been between a rock and a hard place in 1921, but not all thus metaphorically located were bankrupt, Kaiser Fritz included.

The Logic

I have always considered the expression humorous because hard place is essentially a hypernym of rock; that is, in its meaning as ‘dilemma’, one must choose between a rock and something else pretty much like another rock. The expressions be in a hard spot and be in a hard place both predate their joining with rock:

On examining the field of labor, I soon found myself in a hard spot. — The Home Missionary 14/3 (July 1841), 56.

When here on Tuesday I remarked to him that he was in a hard place, and he replied that he would rather be hung, if he could see his wife. — Daily Dispatch (Richmond VA), 8 Sept. 1853.

By adding the rock, the later expression revitalizes the metaphor in hard and gives you two hard spots/places for the price of one.

There was a woman he had with us, and she got away. The Indians must have helped her, and they cut the bridge behind her, and next morning the whole outfit did a bunk. After that we were between a rock and a hard place. — John Buchan, The Courts of the Morning (1929), serialized in The West Australian (Perth), 12 Apr. 1930.

“And then where are you? Well, you're right behind the eight ball, or between a rock and a hard spot.” — Quote, Branch Rickey, coach, St. Louis Cardinals, b. Stockdale OH, The Daily Independent (Elizabeth City NC), 10 Mar. 1937.

Because I find myself between a rock and a hard place, with a lawyer on each side, because I am a so-called lawmaker, and based on the mail I have been receiving I do not think I am a very good one, let me get this straight. — Thurston Ballard Morton (R-KY), “Union Democracy,” House of Representatives, Special Subcommittee on Education and Labor, 2 June 1949.

[Bobby Charles] Harding did most of the talking, and told the others that East Texas [Pulp and Paper Co.] “had him between a rock and a hard place,” since he could not go to work for a big company without revealing where he had last worked. — Decisions and Orders of the National Labor Relations Board 143 (6/22–8/15, 1963), Decision date: 28 June 1963, 436.

The first example is a real puzzler. As far as I can determine, Scottish novelist and military man John Buchan, later 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, never travelled to North America until he was made Governor General of Canada in 1935. The character speaking, the rather unsavory Daniel Judson, combines the quintessentially British do a bunk with the American rock and hard place. Buchan only writes that Judson “passed for an Australian” with the ruler of a fictional South American country where the adventure novel is set. One assumes then that Buchan expects his readers to see him as an American. But where did Buchan hear about rocks and hard places?

Contrary to the assertion at Phrases.com that the expression “frequently” appeared in American papers in the late 30s, a query at newspapers.com yielded only 22 hits for the decade, 13 from Texas. For the previous decade, only 9 hits, 4 of which are from Texas. This hardly qualifies as “frequent.” A Google Books N-Gram flatlines until about 1965, when usage skyrockets toward the end of the century.

Barring some random encounter with an American admirer, the most logical hypothesis is that Buchan remembered hearing it from American soldiers like Sgt. Williams during the war and placed it in the mouth of one of his characters in The Courts of the Morning as something his British readers would imagine is an Americanism. His American readers, at least any he had in Texas, would wonder what the hell do a bunk meant.

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  • Good research! Members of the American Dialect Society email discussion list cite this and have found antedatings in US newspapers: 1914 in OK, 1915 SC, two 1915 GA, 1915 FL and 1916 AK listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2021-October/… (and next messages in thread)
    – Hugo
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 6:28
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I think it may have originated from the expression between Scylla and Charybdis.

The Wikipedia entry says:

Being between Scylla and Charybdis is an idiom deriving from Greek mythology, meaning "having to choose between two evils". Several other idioms, such as "on the horns of a dilemma", "between the devil and the deep blue sea", and "between a rock and a hard place" express similar meanings.

In Greek mythology Scylla and Charybdis were two imaginary monsters that existed either side of the Strait of Medina, between Sicily and the mainland, and navigating between them was perilous.

It would appear (from the OED) that they entered English metaphor in about the sixteenth century. I can remember a time when people would say "between Scylla and Charybdis" to mean exactly what between a rock and a hard place means today.

I suppose that since people are less literate in Greek literature than was once the case, a more everyday metaphor was called for.

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My understanding of this phrase is completely different from the commonly accepted one. I first heard this as a phrase to exemplify euphemism. In that, you can refer to a rock as a "hard place " to avoid using the more blunt term "rock". The way I originally heard this phrase was "It's like the difference between a rock and a hard place ". That would indicate euphemism, not difficult choices. I think it has been usurped by those who found it a convenient way to express a dilemma. As others have pointed out, it doesn't make sense as an idiom expressing a dilemma .

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    I've always understood it as being in a position from which there was no escape, rather than having a choice between two unacceptable alternatives. The image it always gives me is of being crushed like an insect between a stone and hard surface as though between a hammer and an anvil. However it doesn't get a lot of use in the UK so my understanding is very secondhand.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 8:48
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It was explained to me one that the term comes from medieval torture, where one was placed on the ground with a large sharp rock beneath your spine. A heavy reinforced door was placed over you and slowly laden with weights which would slowly crush you, but possibly not before the agony of having you spine broken or severed by the rock. Neither ourcome desirable, ergo the modern saying. The term 'place' has somehow been drived from slang for door over centuries wheras the term rock has remained constant in language so has not changed. You could imagine a particularly sadistic executioner allowing victims to live with severed spines, knowing that in such an era this would in many cases be a way of extending the torture over a considerably longer period as paraplegics would not have fared well in such times.

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    Can you substantiate any of this or is it all made up ?
    – Nigel J
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 0:07

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