Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Episode 193: In a Pickle

Dan hates on cucumbers. And a popular children's book series. And a popular TV mockumentary. But he is helpful in defining what a rundown is in baseball. Shauna explores a light history of pickling and the origins of "In a Pickle" on this week's #BunnyTrails.


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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 193: In a Pickle
Record Date: May 15, 2023
Air Date: May 17, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Imagine you have been invited to two important events on the same day at the same time. You want to attend both and perhaps don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you can't be in two places at once. How will you get yourself out of this pickle?


be in a (pretty) pickle
idiom   old-fashioned (also UK be in a right pickle)

to be in a difficult situation
End Quote

First, let’s take a look at the history of pickles and pickling.

People have been pickling food for thousands of years as a way to preserve food before refrigeration was invented. The earliest evidence of pickling dates back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) around 2400 BCE.

Pickles have their origin in ancient India, where cucumbers were pickled in the Tigris Valley as far back as 2030 BCE.

The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans also practiced pickling, and it was a common way of preserving food throughout Europe and Asia.

What is pickling, you may ask?

Pickling involves preserving food in an acidic solution, such as vinegar, brine, or citrus juice, which creates an environment that is hostile to bacteria and other microorganisms that cause food to spoil. The acid also changes the texture and flavor of the food, giving it a tangy or sour taste.

Pickling was necessary before refrigeration, and pickles were a popular food among sailors, travelers, and families during cold winter months.

What about the word pickle?

The exact origin of the English word "pickle" is uncertain but it is believed to have come from the Dutch pekel or northern German pĆ³kel, meaning "salt" or "brine." According to Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest known use of the word "pickling" dates back to the 1400s.

How did we get from pickles to a person being in a pickle? - that’s Major League Baseball - has its own listing regarding this phrase.


A "pickle" is a rundown.

William Shakespeare is thought to be the first to use the idiom "in a pickle" in The Tempest. But he gave it a somewhat different meaning -- in England, "pickle" actually refers to something close to relish, and one is "in a pickle" if they're inebriated.

But the metaphor got simplified after the phrase came to America. "In a pickle" came to mean "in a tough spot" -- much like a cucumber, stuck sitting in vinegary brine for days on end.
End Quote

In his article about this phrase, Gary Martin of provides a little background, explaining that the phrase comes from the 16th century and was an allusion to being:

 as disoriented and mixed up as the stewed vegetables that made up pickles.
End Quote

The phrase was later used figuratively, meaning simply 'in a fix.' or in a difficult situation.

The earliest usage of the figurative version of the phrase found in print is in the 1610 work by Shakespeare, The Tempest.

In this scene, Alonso, the King of Naples, and his companions are stranded on an island after a shipwreck. Trinculo, the jester, has been wandering the island and drinking alcohol, which made him drunk and disoriented. Alonso and his companions come across Trinculo and notice his drunken state. Alonso asks Trinculo where he got the alcohol that made him so drunk.

    And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
    Find this grand liquor that hath gilded 'em?
    How camest thou in this pickle?

    I have been in such a pickle since I
    saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
    my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.
End Quote

In that scene, Alonso uses the phrase "in this pickle" to describe Trinculo's drunken state. Trinculo’s response is that he has been in such a difficult situation since he last saw Alonso that it will never end, even after he dies.

The next item is found in Chapter 22 of Part I of the 1687 work The History of the Most Renowned Don Quixote of Mancha, and His Trusty Squire, Sancho Pancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, which was translated into English by John Phillips.

The chapter includes a poem or song called "Chrysostom's Rant" which laments the unrequited love of Chrysostom for the character Marcela. The excerpt containing the word "pickle" reads:

"Thus, faint and broken-spirited,
Beneath a crab-tree Chrysostom lay;
Not now with tender tales to win
Fond Marcela's heart, as was his wont, he sang;
But high disdain and wrathful injury
Pour'd from his lips in copious flow.
'Oh, cruel fair! why thus to wound
And ponder well her slights, and money spent;
Her fell ingratitude quite damp
My struggling hope. But when I think
Of that sad pickle I was in
Before I saw, alas! the light that made
Me see how wrong it was to love so fair
And so disdainful too, then up my heart
Mounts, hoping in her scorn to find relief.'"
End Quote

The Sleigh Ride by John Neal was published in The spirit of democracy April 10, 1847 edition out of Woodsfield, Ohio.

I bounced into the widow Bean’s out of breath, and was near catching Patty in the suds. She had just done washing and was wringing out, standing in the midst of numerous tubs, mops, and kettles. She was struck all of a heap at the sight of her spark, and would have blushed nicely, I guess, if she hadn’t been as red as she could be already. “A word in your ear Patty” says I, given’ her a wink, and stepping into a corner, I told her what was brewing. “I’ll run and borrow the deacon’s sleigh, and come back right away,” says I. “Oh, you needn’t be in such a tearing hurry,” says she, “for I’ve got to shift from top to toe. You see what a pickle I’m in.”
End quote

Wheeling daily intelligencer August 17, 1859, Wheeling, Virginia
In the segment, A Short Patent Sermon,

I tell you, my brethren, your bodies were not made to be eaten away by corroding inaction, nor were your souls put into them to become mildewed by that melancholy meditation which you so wofully mistake for renovating rest. A mortal will keep bright and war long by moderate jostlings and with an occasional hard rub; but let him put himself in a pickle - no matter how strong be the binge of contentment - and he will begin to smell musty in less than a month; and you know it, too, ye lazy loungers after perpetual peace and quietness.
End Quote

Rock Island Argus., November 17, 1910, Page 4, Image 4
About Rock Island Argus. (Rock Island, Ill.) 1893-1920


End Quote

Naturally, the phrase was used in ads. Here is one such ad seen in the March 30, 1939 edition of the Evening Star out of Washington, D.C.


End quote

And we just can’t quit with the puns. In the September 19, 1946 issue of the Roanoke Rapids herald from Roanoke Rapids, N.C. we find the phrase used in a photo caption. We see a boy of maybe 8 years old sitting atop a mountain of cucumbers. The caption reads,


End Quote

Now, let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

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Modern Uses

The song "You Can Call Me Al" by Paul Simon was released on the 1986 album Graceland. The lyrics include the line:

"A man walks down the street, he says,
'Why am I soft in the middle now?
Why am I in a pickle when I used to be so together?'"
End quote

"The Slippery Slope," which is the tenth book in the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" series by Lemony Snicket, was published in 2003.

In the book, Klaus and his sister Violet find themselves in a difficult situation as they try to rescue their baby sister Sunny from the clutches of Count Olaf. They end up stranded on a mountainside and have to navigate a dangerous snow-covered slope to try and find her. At one point, Klaus slips and nearly falls off the slope, leading to the following:

"Klaus tried to pull himself up, but his hands were numb with cold and he couldn't get a good grip. 'I'm in a pickle,' he said, his voice trembling."
End quote,siblings%20go%20through%20freezing%20mountains.

The TV show "The Office" season 6 episode 19 titled "St. Patrick's Day," aired in March 2010. In the episode, the characters accidentally spill green paint all over the office. This leads them to a tricky situation trying to clean it up and hide the evidence. Jim says to Dwight:

"We're in a bit of a pickle here, Dwight."
End quote

In the 2019 Disney movie "Toy Story 4", Woody and Forky (a spork that Bonnie made into a toy) are on a road trip with Bonnie and her family. While on the trip, Forky jumps out of the RV and Woody goes after him. They eventually end up in an antique shop, where they meet Gabby Gabby and her ventriloquist dummy henchmen, who want to take Woody's voice box. Woody and Forky try to escape, but end up getting stuck in a storage cabinet with no way out, leading Woody to say:

"We're in a bit of a pickle here, Forky."
End Quote

We know media outlets love a good pun. COVID-19 provided a choice opportunity for them with this idiom. In 2020, the phrase “in a pickle” was used by numerous media outlets to describe the difficult situation faced by the restaurant industry during the pandemic.

And on this topic,

In A Pickle Restaurant in Waltham, MA was featured by Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and is also found on Their listing reads,

At this creative breakfast and lunch joint, chef-owner Tim Burke serves over-the-top dishes like the Toro Loco Burger: two patties stacked on a bed of arugula, topped with sriracha aioli, jalapeno sour cream aioli, a patty of fried pepper jack cheese and onion rings breaded with flaming-hot Cheetos.
Special Dishes: Toro Loco Burger, Pumpkin Bread French Toast
End quote

Wrap Up
As someone with ADHD and a tendency to be clumsy, I find the phrase "in a pickle" quite relatable. It perfectly captures that feeling of being stuck in a difficult situation that I often find myself in. I appreciate how versatile the phrase is - it can be used to describe anything from a minor inconvenience to a major crisis. This means people occasionally use this phrase at times that require far more attention that just a little snafu would demand. Therefore, despite the phrase being somewhat silly, we should consider the circumstances when someone uses it to be certain we appreciate the gravity of each situation. Overall, I think this phrase is a useful and relatable expression that frequently, quite accurately conveys the experience of navigating life's various challenges.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this scenario to our Patrons:

Which of these condiments have you tried?

The condiments we listed came from an article we found called 11 of the most beloved condiments from around the world

Mayo (United States)
Salsa (Mexico and Latin America)
Brown Sauce (The United Kingdom & Ireland)
Banana Sauce (The Philippines)
Vegemite (Australia)
Harissa (Tunisia & North Africa)
Wasabi (Japan)
Ajvar (Serbia)
Chutney (India)
Sriracha (Thailand)
Hoisin Sauce (China)

Most of our respondents have tried Mayo, Salsa, Wasabi, and Sriracha. Less listed were Hoisin, Chutney, Brown Sauce, and Vegemite. Only a few mentioned Banana Sauce, and no one had tried Harissa or Ajvar.

Dan, you’ve recently had a new type of condiment experience.

I wouldn’t call the Tangy Ketchup Doritos I tried a condiment. But I will say my youngest’s boyfriend and I ate the whole bag despite not really liking them. They were like reality TV, we knew it was in bad taste but we just couldn’t stop.

I absolutely love wasabi. Though in the US it is almost always just green-colored horseradish as actual wasabi is difficult to grow outside of Japan and is expensive.

I had brown sauce in Costa Rica, which is called Lizano. It is similar to worcestershire sauce and HP sauce.

I’m a fan of condiments in general. I love spicy ones in particular.

If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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