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What Does "between a Rock and a Hard Place" Mean?

By Marco Sumayao
Updated May 23, 2024
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"Between a rock and a hard place" is an idiom used to convey the situation of having to choose between two difficult options. Either solution to the problem presents further hardships for an individual, with no alternative choice. The expression is often used when referring to lose-lose situations or in dilemmas where neither answer presents an easy way out. Other idiomatic expressions with similar meanings include "having to choose between two evils" and "having two chances: fat and slim," although the phrase is more appropriate when used to refer to the situation at hand rather than the individual's limited course of action.

Many etymologists trace the origins of this idiom to Greek mythology. Legends were written about a treacherous area at sea where sailors would find themselves stuck between Scylla, a monstrous multi-headed beast atop a cliff, and Charybdis, an enormous whirlpool. Going in either direction meant certain death, creating an incredibly difficult dilemma for the sailors to face. This story led to the creation of the expression "caught between Scylla and Charybdis," which referred to being in an inescapable predicament.

The first recorded use of "between a rock and a hard place," however, was in 1921 in the US. The expression likely related to the illegal deportation in 1917 of over 1,000 miners from Bisbee, Arizona. Many of the miners went on strike against their employers, citing unsafe working conditions and poor treatment of the employed. Rather than give in to their demands, the employers had the workers deported to New Mexico. The expression might have referred to the reality that workers were faced with a difficult situation: either return to the "rock" — the mines in which they worked — and face the troubles of illegal labor practices, or enter the "hard place" of poverty following the loss of their jobs resulting from their deportation.

It is also possible that the idiom referred to the prospect of having to choose between accepting deportation and the unjust legal procedures that followed should they choose to contest the employer's actions. The town's sheriff allegedly held sham proceedings when faced with cases against the employers or against the unreasonable guidelines needed to stay in Bisbee. Males unknown to the sheriff, or those who fell out of the sheriff's favor, were tried in court and threatened with deportation and physical beatings. Faced with the dilemma of having to choose between poverty in New Mexico and the legal abuses in Bisbee, miners found themselves stuck with no good options.

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Discussion Comments
By Melonlity — On Jan 14, 2015

@Vincenzo -- The logic is sound, indeed, and I have never heard another explanation for how that saying came to be. It would make sense if the idiom "between a rock and a hard place" started off in Greek mythology because a lot of the idioms we use and a good chunk of the Western world view were influenced by the Greeks and Greek mythology.

By Vincenzo — On Jan 13, 2015

Back in high school, I had an English professor who clearly subscribed to the notion that the "caught between a rock and a hard place" clearly came from the Greek mythology phrase mentioned in this article.

However, saying "caught between Scylla and Charybdis" just doesn't flow that well. The now well known idiom, then, replaced that cumbersome one.

I don't know how true that all is, but the logic of it if very sound.

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