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What Does It Mean to Be "in the Soup"?

By Cindy Quarters
Updated May 23, 2024
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When someone is said to be “in the soup,” it means that a person is in some type of trouble or is having a problem of sorts. This can be confusing if the listener is not familiar with this particular phrase. This description has nothing to do with soup or the process of making it. Instead, it is actually an idiom, a phrase whose meaning is not related to the literal definition of the words.

Idioms add plenty of color and interest to a language, but they also can make it somewhat difficult for non-native speakers to understand. English is filled with hundreds of idioms, and without knowing what is behind them they can make a conversation hard to follow. Anyone trying to make literal sense of an idiom will not have much luck and will most likely end up being very confused.

The meaning behind “in the soup” most likely has to do with the actual process of cooking, where anything that went into the pot was in trouble, since it was becoming part of a meal. This explanation makes it seem obvious why being “in the soup” means being in trouble or having a problem, since being cooked is certainly an undesirable state. This is not the only possible source of this idiom, however.

Another theory is that the phrase “in the soup” goes back to the Irish potato famine in the first half of the 19th century. Caused by a blight that killed off virtually all of the potato crop, the famine brought starvation to much of Ireland. The British set up soup kitchens in some of the major Irish cities to feed the starving people. The story goes on to say that anyone who wished to eat there had to renounce the Catholic faith and convert the family name to a more acceptable version.

Not wanting to starve, many of the Irish complied, and names such as O’Grady became Grady. Other families changed their names in a similar manner. This story shows how starving people came to be “in the soup,” or accepted into the British soup kitchens, so that they could be fed. While there is some controversy about the truth of the story, it makes a strong case for how this idiom could have begun. It also offers a reasonable explanation of how the phrase could have come to be interpreted as meaning someone who is in a difficult situation, or is experiencing some sort of trouble.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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