The idiomatic phrase between a rock and a hard place is one that perfectly illustrates the versatility and expressiveness of the English language. Just think of the visual that this phrase conjures up in your mind. The metaphorical usage isn’t far from that image. So, let’s jump in and get to the bottom of what between a rock and a hard place means and see how you can use it.
Meaning of Between a Rock and a Hard Place
We use the idiom between a rock and a hard place to describe a situation where you or someone else has to make a very difficult decision between two equally undesirable options or outcomes. In other words, it’s used to convey a dilemma or a predicament where there are no good choices.
A good example is my kids. There are two of them, and I can’t be in the two places at the same time. So, when they each have a school concert, a birthday party to go to, or some other event they want me to attend, I have to choose which one to go to. If I chose one, the other would be upset, and vice versa. So, no matter what I pick, someone will be mad at me or disappointed.
Is It Stuck or Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place?
Even though the original phrase is just between a rock and a hard place, it’s super common to hear variations like stuck between a rock and a hard place or caught between a rock and a hard place. All these variations will convey the same meaning of being in a tough situation with no easy solutions, so use whichever you want. Either way, use the phrase after verb terms when you can.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place Etymology/Origin
The phrase originated in the United States sometime in the early 20th century. It’s said to have first been used by miners in Bisbee, Arizona, who in 1912 had to choose between facing the hard conditions in the mines (the rock) or the equally difficult conditions outside them (the hard place).
One of the earliest printed citations of the phrase is in an American Dialect Society’s publication in 1921:
“To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.”
It was also made popular during the Great Depression when Americans found themselves having to make hard choices and pick between things like food and clothing.
Synonyms for a Rock and a Hard Place
Here are a handful of synonymous phrases you can use instead.
- Between the devil and the deep blue sea
- On the horns of a dilemma
- In a pickle
- Hobson’s choice
- Between Scylla and Charybdis
- In a tight spot
Between a Rock and a Hard Place Sentence Examples
- With rising rent and decreasing income during the recession, Jake found himself between a rock and a hard place.
- Our government’s caught between a rock and a hard place to either increase taxes on the people or face a nasty budget deficit.
- Choosing between her career and her family left Magda feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place because she loved them both.
- I was caught between real a rock and a hard place last when I had to choose between going to my brother’s funeral on the other side of the country or staying here for my mother’s funeral.
- The team was between a rock and a hard place—they could either play safe or risk everything for a chance at a huge victory.
This is one idiom that never really has a positive connotation unless you use it jokingly to poke fun at how the two choices at hand are both amazing. And if you ever forget what it means, just picture James Franco in the movie 127 Days, where he was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place.