A common expression, but where did it come from? It sounds to me like it is the English version of a Yiddish phrase, but it’s not.<2012 “Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is ‘in a pickle’ arguing against the president's health care bill because he passed a similar version in Massachusetts.”—CBS News, 1 July>
IN A PICKLE colloquial: In a disagreeable, embarrassing, or awkward situation; in a sorry plight; in trouble; in a predicament; in hot water.
Etymology: It is said to come from a phrase we borrowed from Dutch (about five hundred years ago), in de pekel zitten—‘sitting in the pickle,’ with ‘pickle’ originally being the brinish, vinegary liquid used to preserve meats and vegetables. So, anyone sitting in the pickle – in pickle juice – would be mighty uncomfortable. The expression was formerly used in more serious situations: “In the pickle lyeth man by nature, that is, all we that be Adam’s children.”—Sermons (1585) by John Fox. Shakespeare was also fond of it (see circa 1616 quote below).
(Oxford English Dictionary, Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, and Picturesque Expressions by Urdang)
The following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
__________________<circa 1616 “Alonso: How cam'st thou in this pickle? Trinculo: I haue bin in such a pickle since I saw you last, that, I fear me, will never out of my bones . . .”—The Tempest (1623), Act v. Scene i>
<1711 “I am ashamed to be caught in this Pickle.”—R. Steele in The Spectator, No. 302, §11>
<1893 “I could see no way out of the pickle I was in.”—Catriona by Robert Lewis Stevenson, xxiv. page 291>
<1955 “ Leicestershire would have been in a pretty pickle without their captain . . .”—The Times (London), 24 May, page 4/7>
<1986 “Mother Nature is fickle. She saw the Phillies in a pickle last night against Cubs reliever Frank DiPino . . .”—Chicago Sun-Times (Illinois), 2 August>
<2005 “The Medici dynasty found itself in a pickle in 15th-century Florence: its vast fortune, procured through banking, violated Catholic Church precepts forbidding usury.”—Washington Post, 15 May>
<2012 “The PM is in a pickle here as he has a pool of only five Quebec MPs from which to draw.”—Winnipeg Free Press (Manitoba, Canada), 23 June>
Ken G – July 1, 2012