[Ads-l] between a rock and a hard place (1914)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Oct 30 06:35:30 UTC 2021

OED3's earliest cite for the idiom "between a rock and a hard place" comes
from a 1921 issue of Dialect Notes, which defined it as "to be bankrupt.
Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California." The Phrase
Finder site speculates that it originated in a 1917 dispute between copper
mining companies and mineworkers in Bisbee, Arizona:


On the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, KarlG finds that theory
implausible, noting that the expression was used by an American soldier
writing home from Europe in 1918:


The soldier's letter (dated Nov. 9, 1918 from "somewhere in France") was
published in a New Mexico newspaper:

Mountainair (New Mex.) Independent, Dec 19, 1918, p. 8, col. 2
Seeing from the papers, that we have the Central Power bunch between a rock
and a hard place, I am afraid that the hard place will get harder than the
rock if Fritz don’t wake up and get out while he is yet breathing.

But it's possible to find it in use even earlier than that, as in this 1914

Poteau (Okla.) Weekly Sun, Oct 1, 1914, p. 5, col. 1
As an example of fine distinctions, a party of men were discussing the
present situation of the German army this week. One remarked that the
Germans were between the devil and the deep sea; while another corrected
him by saying that the Germans were between the upper and nether stone. The
third man whose name is Pillgreen and who works in the treasurer’s office
simply remarked that the Germans were between a rock and a hard place.
Here’s hoping that all three versions are in the main correct, so as to end
the war.

It's interesting that both the 1914 and 1918 examples relate to the
fortunes of Germany and the Central Powers in World War I.


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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