I can't find much online about the etymology/origin of the phrase besides mention of a psychologist naming a torture chamber for experiments he did on monkeys:

The pit of despair was a name used by American comparative psychologist Harry Harlow for a device he designed, technically called a vertical chamber apparatus, that he used in experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the 1970s. - Wikipedia

Curious if y'all might have some thoughts.

  • 1
    I would think it is pretty obvious.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 6 at 2:37
  • 2
    Imagine that you're thrown into a pit that you can't climb out of.
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 6 at 3:22
  • The etymology? If William Goldman can use it in SFF lit 50 years ago, what research do you bring to this question?
    – livresque
    Nov 6 at 3:34
  • 2
    Are you asking about whether the phrase "pit of despair" was in existence prior to the psychologist's use of it with reference to the vertical chamber apparatus? If o, this is really a "phrase origin" question, not an etymology question. (Admittedly, this site has never been very clear about distinguishing between word an phrase origins—that is, first occurrences and their context—on the one hand and etymology on the other._
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 6 at 5:31
  • Hercules S01E02: 'The grove of despair is for despairing. You're scheming, aren't you?' - maybe a greek thing too?
    – BCLC
    Nov 6 at 10:36

2 Answers 2


Google books finds this:

The Indian Pilgrim by Mary Martha Sherwood, 1818

I have fallen into the pit of despair , and here I must remain for ever

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, 1678, seems to have only

the pit of darkness and despair

besides the more colorfully named

slough of despond

  • 2
    Google Books finds many earlier examples, showing it was already well-established by 1818. The earliest I’ve found so far is from 1703, in the pamphlet “Achitophel: or, the true picture of a Wicked Politician”, by Nathanael Carpenter: “In this bottomless Pit of Despair, where no Passenger can cast anchor, dos Achitophel now find himself plung’d…” on Google Books, though it’s from around 1800 that occurrences really take off.
    – PLL
    Nov 6 at 10:57
  • 4
    But I agree, it seems very likely that Bunyan’s pit of darkness and despair was the original coining, and that this phrase arose as a simplification of that — The Pilgrim’s Progress was an extremely widely read classic for centuries, across the whole Anglophone world.
    – PLL
    Nov 6 at 11:00

It just means a figurative pit or hole, difficult to get out of, in which someone experiences despair or complete hopelessness. You could look at the etymology of each word, but the phrase itself has no such thing.

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