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

Jim B.

"In a pickle" is an English idiom that refers to someone who has ended up in a difficult situation. Although the phrase's colorful nature suggests that the predicaments are more nuisances than major problems, it can be used for any situation where someone cannot find a way out of a dilemma. The phrase gets its meaning from the way that vegetables like gherkins and cucumbers were mixed up and preserved in pickle sauces hundreds of years ago. In the sport of baseball, the phrase "in a pickle" refers to a base runner who is trapped on the base paths between defensive players tossing the ball back and forth.

Pickled gherkins. To be "in a pickle" means to be in a difficult situation.
Pickled gherkins. To be "in a pickle" means to be in a difficult situation.

It is common for people speaking English to use colorful words and phrases that have meanings that don't quite coincide with their literal definitions. These phrases are known as idioms, which gain their accepted meanings from the ways that people in a culture use them over time. Idioms are effective tools for those wishing to speak in a familiar manner with others who know the phrases well. One such idiom is the expression "in a pickle."

A base runner who is trapped on the base paths between defensive players may be referred to as being "in a pickle".
A base runner who is trapped on the base paths between defensive players may be referred to as being "in a pickle".

This phrase has origins that go back hundreds of years. In times gone by, the word pickle referred to a sauce or stew that contained many different types of vegetables, which were all mixed together. As a result, someone who was deemed to be "in a pickle" was considered to be figuratively mixed up or in a situation that was difficult to sort out.

For modern speakers, this idiomatic expression has come to symbolize anyone who finds himself or herself in a tricky situation. It may be a permanent conundrum, but more often than not it is a temporary issue that still may require great effort to effectively resolve. As an example of how this phrase is used, consider the sentence, "I can't believe he asked two different girls to the dance; I think you could safely say that he's in a pickle."

There is also a usage of this phrase that's specific to the sport of baseball. In baseball, there are certain times when a player running between bases will get caught between two or more defensive players with no clear way to reach either base safely. The defensive players throw the ball back and forth rapidly while trying to get close enough to tag the runner out. When this occurs, baseball jargon defines this runner as being "in a pickle."

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Discussion Comments


@ankara-- It's actually even older than Shakespeare's use of it. He's definitely one of the first people to include it in their literature, but I'm sure it was in use at least twenty or thirty years before Shakespeare used it.

@burcidi-- That's a good point and I understand what you mean. The thing with most idioms is that we don't have a clear historical account of who used it first and how it came about to be.

My friend, who is an English major, has told me that this phrase was first used by the Dutch. When someone was in a bad situation where they felt embarrassed, they would say that the person "is in the pickle."

I'm not exactly sure, but it probably originated from the fact that the brine used to make pickles is very strong. It's a combination of vinegar and salt which breaks down and maintains food at the same time. Imagine if someone were to sit in a pickle brine for some time. They would feel horrible-- very uncomfortable. I think that's how the idiom came to be.


My mom uses this phrase a lot. I know that she means she's in a fix-- she has a problem and doesn't know how to go about it. But every time I hear it, I feel like laughing and wonder who taught of this funny phrase in the first place.

It really doesn't make much sense. Even if the first pickles were a mix of vegetables, why would they say that a person is "in a pickle?" I can infer the "mixed-up," "confused" meaning from this. But "being in a pickle" also means that you are in trouble. You have to do something about a situation, but whatever you do, you feel that you won't be able to fix it. So in that sense, I don't get the pickle metaphor at all.


I think this idiom is quite old but surprisingly it's still used often. Usually, older idioms lose popularity over the years and people don't use them as much as they used to. And sometimes the meanings of idioms change over time too.

In my English class a couple of weeks ago, we were reading "The Tempest" by Shakespeare. And this idiom is actually used in it, in exactly the same sense we use it today.

I think this is great. I love it when I read older and newer literature and see common idioms and phrases. It makes me value language more.

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