On the Rocks – Meaning and Origin

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

On the rocks means that something is in trouble, difficult, or harsh. You might think of a chilled drink with ice cubes as the base, which is also a common way to use the phrase, but the idiom has more layers than a cocktail onion.

If someone says their relationship is on the rocks, they’re telling you it’s in danger of falling apart. At the same time, you can go to a bar and ask for bourbon on the rocks, and they’ll give you a shot of liquor with ice, no mix.

Idioms are metaphorical phrases that give us creative ways to communicate. They’re also glimpses into the past and how language and culture have evolved over time. So, add this idiom to your list by learning its meaning, origin, and proper usage with the few sentence examples I share at the end.

On the Rocks Meaning Explained

On the Rocks – Meaning and Origin

When something is on the rocks, it signifies a situation or relationship that is in trouble, at risk, or in a state of instability, much like a ship in peril on rocky shores. It symbolizes trouble, jeopardy, or a shaky situation. However, the fascinating part of this idiom is its dual origins, one stemming from the nautical world and the other, somewhat unexpectedly, from the realm of alcoholic beverages served over ice.

On the Rocks Etymology and Origins

On the Rocks Ngram
On the rocks usage trend.

The nautical world gives us this gem, but so do the Scots. Ships in danger of wrecking were said to be “on the rocks” if they got too close to rocky shores. Though it’s been used in this sense for centuries, the more “liquor-laced” meaning made a splash around the early 20th century when bartenders began using the term to describe drinks served over ice. This arm of the idiom came from the idea of Scottish highlanders chilling their beverages with cold rocks from the river.

Synonyms for ‘On the Rocks’

No synonym can quite capture the blend of peril and refreshment like “on the rocks”; here are a few that come pretty darn close.

  • In jeopardy
  • In a tight spot
  • In hot water
  • Teetering on the edge
  • On thin ice
  • In trouble

On the Rocks Examples in a Sentence

On the Rocks – Meaning and Origin 1

Shake and stir this phrase into your daily convo with a few scenarios that put the idiom into better contexts.

  • My best friend’s marriage has been on the rocks ever since they moved abroad.
  • Sam ordered his whiskey on the rocks, hoping to soothe his nerves.
  • The company’s finances are on the rocks after that disastrous social media marketing campaign.
  • “Is everything okay? You two seem a bit on the rocks lately,” she asked her friend.
  • Jill found herself stranded on the rocks when she forgot her lines during the play.
  • That ship is on the rocks; it veered off course during the storm.
  • Their friendship was on the rocks after a series of misunderstandings about a shared business idea.
  • The project is on the rocks without the funding we desperately need.
  • I’ll take my gin in a big glass and on the rocks, please.

Straight Up With a Twist!

From perilous ships to stiff drinks, on the rocks is an idiom that’s both sobering and intoxicating. This is the perfect saying for those tough times, so keep it in mind. And be sure to pair it with some of the other idioms found on our site.