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shameless pleading

Between a rock and a hard place

Please don’t squeeze the Argonauts.

Dear Word Detective: This has always bothered me. I understand the general meaning of “stuck between a wall and a hard place” — to be in a situation where you don’t know what to do or maybe either decision will end up with a problem. (I just made that up, I didn’t do any research so correct me if I’m wrong on the meaning.) But where did that come from? Obviously it means exactly what it sounds like, stuck between two hard things, but why a wall and a hard place? Who came up with those two specific things? — Blaze Call.

Good question. By the way, is your name really Blaze? If so, that’s awesome. I had a friend when I was a kid whose legal first name was “Tiger.” He was, as I recall, pretty skinny and nerdy, but I’ll bet being called Tiger all day made up for that. It certainly beat “Evan,” a name so uncommon in the US back then that one of my teachers insisted that I was simply wrong and my name was actually “Kevin.” To this day I have a grudge against the name “Kevin.”

The hallmark of a good metaphor is that it is easily understood, and you’ve certainly grasped the essence of this one. The form you’ve heard, however, differs slightly from the standard version, which is “Between a rock and a hard place,” a phrase which dates back to the 1920s and was coined in the Southwestern US mining industry. The specific choice of “rock” and “hard place” probably reflects the actual experience of miners faced with a brutal job in a harsh and unforgiving environment. The original meaning of the phrase was apparently “to be bankrupt,” but the phrase quickly broadened into the modern meaning of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “faced with two equally difficult alternatives; in difficulty.” The key to the phrase is that “a rock” is itself “a hard place,” so there’s no good choice available.

The sense of being stuck between two unpleasant alternatives is, of course, a common human condition, and there are much older phrases conveying the same predicament. Probably the oldest is “Between Scylla and Charybdis,” drawn from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, written around 850 B.C. In the story, Odysseus, on the way home from the Trojan War (he took the scenic route, of course) was forced to sail between Scylla (a sea monster with six heads on long, snakelike necks) and Charybdis (a massive evil whirlpool who almost, but not quite, slurped down Odysseus). Odysseus also escaped Scylla, although she did manage to eat six of his men. Both monsters, interestingly, are female, with convoluted divine back-stories. In actuality, the myth of Scylla and Charybdis was probably based on the treacherous Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy, a narrow passage lined with rocky crags (i.e., Scylla) and a small but dangerous whirlpool (Charybdis).

“Between Scylla and Charybdis” has been a metaphor for “caught between two unpleasant alternatives” in English since at least 1400 (“In avoiding the Scylla of the mud-bank we had all but stumbled upon the Charybdis of a dredging-machine.” 1860), but given the fading away of education in the classics in modern schools, “between a rock and a hard place” will probably have to do at this point. But fans of Ray Harryhausen stop-motion movies will recognize Scylla and Charybdis in the form of the Clashing Rocks that the Argonauts must avoid in the 1963 epic “Jason and the Argonauts,” very loosely based on the original Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

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