Today there is a remarkably interesting form of communication between people to express everyday ideas that go beyond the literal meaning of each word that integrates a sentence, and they are idiomatic expressions. Within the almost infinite number of idiomatic expressions, a commonly used one is the phrase "to be caught between a rock and a hard place", which will be the focus of this article.
The expression "caught between a rock and a hard place" means that a person is cornered with no escape and no apparent solution between two extreme situations where neither is better and where any choice will be terrible. Literally, it means to be caught between two equally difficult situations.
The way people communicate with each other has evolved over the years. Almost all languages have incorporated thousands of idiomatic expressions, new words that did not exist before, changes in old words, and even the disappearance or disuse of many others. Nothing remains unchanged or static, absolutely everything changes and evolves thanks to social, political, economic, and cultural factors, and in this case languages and the way people express themselves are no exception.
What Are Idiomatic Expressions?
The first thing to note is that idiomatic expressions are phrases or sentences that have a meaning that has already been universally accepted and shared by a community. However, it is important to clarify that in each idiomatic expression there are two possible readings: the first is the literal meaning of each component or word that makes up the phrase, and the second is the real meaning of the expression for the society that transcends the literal definition of each of its elements.
In other words, an idiomatic expression may not make any logical sense if it is interpreted literally in each of the words that form it, so the best way to understand an idiomatic phrase is to assume the real meaning that the social collective has assigned to it from the moment of its creation. The idiomatic expression is a kind of metaphor, with the advantage that, unlike literary metaphors, this one is understood, assumed, and adopted by most people, whether they use it regularly or not.
Idiomatic expressions are a block interpretation of a feeling or situation, they can never be an individual interpretation of each of its elements, which is why these phrases have become much more than idioms or colloquialisms to become vocabulary.
Origin Of The Phrase "Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Place".
As already mentioned, the phrase "caught between a rock and a hard place" means to be faced with two equally terrible situations, with no favorable option as a realistic scenario, and to be forced to choose one of them despite the terrible consequences.
Normally these two situations to choose from are opposites or contradictory and the selection of some of them will inevitably mean a setback for the person or persons involved. It is undeniable that the literal meaning of the sentence is very graphic, you only must imagine someone who is being pointed with a sword against a wall to understand the meaning of the expression, even if it is someone who is hearing this phrase for the first time in his life. But what is the origin of this popular phrase and how has it come to be so often referred to by people all over the world in situations of distress or desperation?
Origin In Greek Mythology
It cannot really be said that there is an origin of the expression "caught between a rock and a hard place" that is 100% proven or attributable to a single fact or concrete source. The older the origin of things is, the more difficult is its objective historical verification, and the scarcer are the tangible evidence that supports its exact creation, leaving as the only possible sources the word of mouth transmitted from generation to generation or other more speculative or subjective evidence.
Based on the above, one of the most widespread theories of the origin of the phrase goes back to Greek mythology. Between Italy and Greece lies the Strait of Messina, which was considered extremely dangerous in all matters relating to the navigation of ships because its depths were inhabited by two fearsome monsters: Scylla and Charybdis, each living at opposite ends of the strait. Although the two monsters were different from each other, both were equally fearsome and dangerous due to their characteristics. Scylla was at first a kind of nymph but later transformed into a horrible seven-headed monster, while Charybdis had as a particular attribute the ability to swallow huge amounts of water that would later transform into giant whirlpools, causing the sinking of all ships passing through that area.
Although all ships knew of the existence of these two monsters and did everything humanly possible to avoid them when navigating those waters, it was impossible to go unnoticed in the eyes of these monsters since the ends of the strait were awfully close to each other and any maneuver of the sailors was practically useless, being inevitably trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. This caused the phrase "between Scylla and Charybdis" to be used more and more to refer to an extreme situation and impossible to escape, with time this phrase would evolve and change to the expression widely used today "to be caught between a rock and a hard place".
Origin In American Culture
A much more recent origin of this idiomatic expression can be found in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. There is not much more documented data to explain what happened at that time for this phrase to be adopted within the vocabulary of the time, it was simply that it began to be recognized that being between two situations of great difficulty and with no visible way out was the same as "being between a rock and a hard place".
Origin In Pop Culture
An even more diffuse origin than the other two explained above is the one that some people assign to it but which has no basis or foundation, and that is the association of the idiomatic expression with the era of swordsmen, with sword fights to the death and even with the sport of fencing as the point of origin of the phrase to be caught between the sword and the wall. Although it seems much more superficial and devoid of tangible evidence to prove its veracity, it cannot be categorically assured that this theory is false and that on the contrary the other two are completely true, simply all contribute and enrich the value and validity of the phrase in today's popular culture.
How People Use This Phrase
Below we will review some of the main situations in which people currently use the phrase "to be caught between a rock and a hard place".
Situations Involving Disappointment
When opposing situations arise in which the person must obligatorily take one of the two options and knows that by deciding, he/she will disappoint the unchosen counterpart. This is the typical situation where someone especially important to the person will be disappointed in any of the decisions made.
Situations Involving Desperation
These are those situations where one is aware that any of the options chosen will imply a harmful or highly unpleasant situation for oneself, so the phrase is used as a deep relief to this overwhelming discomfort.
Situations Involving Frustration
Although the person wants to act in the right way, he knows that he is forced and cornered by circumstances to decide between two negative scenarios that will prevent him from acting in accordance with his principles. In this case, the phrase is used as a heartfelt expression of frustration.
Situations Involving Guilt
Undoubtedly, choosing a situation that means harming or damaging a third party will generate in the conscious person a feeling of discomfort that is difficult to contain. In this case, the phrase is used as a sincere manifestation of guilt.
Use Of The Phrase In Everyday Sentences.
The meaning of the phrase, its different theories of origin, and some of its most common current use among people have been extensively reviewed, so it only remains to show some real examples of the use of this phrase in everyday life.
- My mother-in-law has invited me to dinner and my mother has invited me to dinner too, and both invitations are on the same day and at the same time, I am caught between a rock and a hard place!
- Saturday is my wedding anniversary but I must travel for work that day, I am caught between a rock and a hard place!
- I must hire someone and I interviewed a candidate with all the experience and skills we are looking for, but my boss wants me to hire his nephew who has never worked and is disrespectful to people. I am caught between a rock and a hard place!
The idiomatic expression "to be caught between a rock and a hard place" graphically illustrates both literally and figuratively its meaning in an amazingly simple way. It is a phrase that is deeply embedded in the popular culture of most countries because it carries a universal meaning that is unanimously recognized, used, and valued to express a feeling that transcends words, and that is really the value that idioms carry.
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Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He's one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don't even want to know what he calls pancakes.