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Are You Stuck 'Between a Rock and a Hard Place?'

A picture shows a balanced sculpture built during the European Stone Stacking Championships 2019 in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 2019. (Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP)
A picture shows a balanced sculpture built during the European Stone Stacking Championships 2019 in Dunbar, Scotland, on April 21, 2019. (Photo by Andy Buchanan / AFP)
Are You Stuck 'Between a Rock and a Hard Place?'
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Now, the VOA Learning English program, Words and Their Stories.

On this program we explore the origins and usage of common expressions in American English.

And we are happy that you have decided to learn English. It is a good choice. There is really no downside in learning a new language, especially a useful one. But not all choices are as harmless. Some decisions have no good choice.

Today we will talk about those.

English has many words and expressions that describe those times when you must make a choice but all of your options are terrible!

For starters, you can say you are between a rock and a hard place. This is when you must decide between two things that are equally unpleasant.

Greek origin

Many cultures have their own version of this story. But one of the most famous is the Greek story of Scylla and Charybdis.

You consider me the young apprentice
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis
Hypnotized by you if I should linger
Staring at the ring around your finger

(The Police sing the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”)

The online resource Encyclopedia Britannica explains that in Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were two immortal monsters. They terrorized ships that tried to travel the Strait of Messina, a narrow waterway between Sicily and the Italian mainland.

Scylla is the personification -- the human representation of a non-human thing -- of sharp rocks and other objects along the coast. Scylla destroyed ships that came too close.

Charybdis is the personification of a whirlpool, a dangerous water formation in seas and oceans. Charybdis also destroyed ships that came too close but in a very different way.

But both could kill you! And they were located so close to each other that they gave sailors an almost impossible choice. Avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa.

And that is what “being between a rock and hard place” means. You are in an impossibly difficult situation with no good choices.

So really, you must choose between the lesser of two evils.

Now, let’s hear this used in a conversation between two friends. A woman is planning a birthday party for her son. And a friend who offers to help finds himself in a dilemma, a real pickle – you know a difficult situation! He has a hard decision to make.

Can I help with the birthday party?

Oh yes! Thank you so much!

Of course! It’s your son’s birthday. I’m happy to help.

Well, I need to take my dog to the vet later today. But I also promised my son that I would take him and his friends out for ice cream after the party. So, can you either take the dog or the kids?

Ah … how many kids?

Seven. No wait. Eight. And they will probably all be ready for a nap.

So they’ll be tired and quiet?

No. They will be irritable and over-excited because they’ve had too much sugar.

Argh. That sounds terrible. But then again, I’m not really a dog person. Is she good in the car?

She hates it! But not as much as she hates the doctor. She will probably bark the whole time.

Okay. So, I can either take an unhappy, barking dog to the vet. Or I can take a car full of overly excited six-year-olds out for messy ice cream.

Right. But I’ll pay for the ice cream and I’ll pay to have your car cleaned afterward – no matter which one you choose.



I don’t know! I have a dilemma. I'm still weighing my options. They are both so bad!

I didn’t mean to put you between a rock and hard place. But you did offer.

Now, you may have also heard the expression: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

This may sound the same as “being between a rock and a hard place” but we use it a little differently.

If you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t – it means that no matter what you do, someone is going to be angry or upset with you. Being between a rock and a hard place involves your choosing between two terrible choices.

Now whenever you have to choose between these expressions, you will know which one to use. And luckily choosing between them will not put you between a rock and a hard place.

And that brings us to the end of this Words and Their Stories.

Is there a time when you found yourself between a rock and a hard place? Let us know in the comments section using the words and expressions you heard here.

Until next time … I’m Anna Matteo!

Between a rock and a hard place
Whether I like it or not I'm digging my grave
Friends ask me why I choose to stay
Between a rock and a hard place ...

Anna Matteo wrote this script. Ashley Thompson edited it. At the end of the program. The song at the end is Daniel Ramirez singing “Rock and a Hard Place.”


Words in This Story

option – n. the opportunity or ability to choose something or to choose between two or more things

terrible – adj. extremely bad

immortal – adj. not capable of dying : living forever

personification – n. representation of a thing or abstraction as a person or by the human form

whirlpool – n. a rapid swirl of water with a low place in the center into which floating objects are drawn

vice versa – adv. with the order changed

irritable – adj. becoming angry or annoyed easily

weighing my options – idiomatic expression : thinking carefully about options or choices

vet – n. short for veterinarian, a doctor that treats animals

dilemma – n. a usually undesirable or unpleasant choice a problem involving a difficult choice

pickle – n. a difficult situation