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What Does It Mean to Be "in a Fix"?

Cynde Gregory
Cynde Gregory

The English expression in a fix is one that isn’t immediately transparent. It simply means to be in trouble in a situation that will be difficult to repair or escape. Fix is normally a verb, and the fact that the idiom uses it as a noun is confusing to non-native English speakers, children, and anybody else who stops to ponder where the expression in a fix came from.

The phrase isn’t very transparent, and the origins are pretty much lost in the mists of linguistic time, but a little information on the history of the English word fix might help illuminate the phrase’s true meaning. In Latin, figere means to fasten or attach. By the Middle Ages, the verb had transformed into fixare. Something that has been fixed, then, hasn’t been repaired but attached to something else in a fairly secure way. Someone in an unpleasant situation that is difficult to get out of is fixed, or in a fix.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

This begins to make sense when considering the phrase in a fix in light of other, similar ones. It might be easy to assume that expressions like in a pickle, in a stew, or in a jam were all coined by the same hungry wordmonger, but in fact, all three phrases are pretty apt metaphors for the same thing. In essence, these phrases all mean to be stuck in trouble.

Centuries ago, pickles were not only those sour green things but also the vinegar used to make them. Being in a pickle didn’t mean being inside the crunchy, sour, pickled cucumber but being in the vinegar itself and unable to escape its slow transformation. Interestingly, someone who is pickled is drunk. Other than having its own set of problems, that idiom has nothing to do with being in a pickle!

The phrases in a stew and in a jam make a little more sense. Both are foods that are cooked to the point where there’s a breakdown of individual items so that they can meld together. In essence, they have become fixed together, and the process can’t be reversed. Another phrase that also suggests being trapped in trouble is my goose is cooked. It seems reasonable to assume that the transformative quality of cooking a food to the point where it cannot return to its former state adds something to the meaning of these phrases.

Fix is one of those English words with a primary meaning — to repair — as well as less frequently used secondary ones. The primary meaning is also captured by a number of idioms. A phrase that’s popular with the older generation and is amusing to younger ones is don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

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      Woman standing behind a stack of books