The Grammarphobia Blog

In a pickle

Q: I was eating a half-sour the other day, which inspired this question: Where does the expression “in a pickle,” meaning in trouble, come from?

A: We’ll be in an etymological pickle if we try to explain the origin of “in a pickle” without first discussing the history of “pickle” itself. Here’s the story.

When it first showed up in English in the 1300s or 1400s, the noun “pickle” referred to a spicy sauce served with meat or fowl.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says English probably borrowed the word “pickle” from Middle Dutch, where pekel referred to brine.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the ultimate source of pekel may have been the Germanic base of another Middle Dutch word, peken, meaning to prick or pierce.

With the -el suffix added, the OED says, the original sense of pekel was “something that pricks or is piquant.”

The English “pickle,” according to the OED and Chambers, was first recorded in the alliterative Morte Arthure, an anonymous Middle English poem that appeared in writing around 1440 but is thought by many scholars to date from the 1300s.

(The alliterative Morte Arthure, the stanzaic Morte Arthure, and several other Arthurian sources influenced the better-known Le Morte d’Arthure, 1470-85, attributed to Sir Thomas Mallory.)

The word “pickle” (pekill in Middle English) appears in the alliterative Morte Arthure in this gruesome description of a giant’s diet:

“He sowppes all this seson with seuen knaue childre, / Choppid in a chargour of chalke-whytt syluer, / With pekill and powdyre of precious spycez.” (He sups all this season on seven knavish children, chopped in a bowl of chalk-white silver, with pickle and powder of precious spices.)

Here “pickle” refers to a sauce, but by the early 1500s the word had taken on a new meaning: the brine, vinegar, or other solution in which food is preserved.

The earliest citation in the OED for this new sense is from an entry, written around 1503, in a chronicle of the London merchant Richard Arnold: “To make a pigell to kepe freshe sturgen in.”

By the late 1500s, “pickle” was being used in an extended figurative sense to mean a disagreeable or troubling condition—the sense found in the expression “in a pickle.”

The first two OED citations for this new usage are somewhat ambiguous, but here’s a clear 1585 example from the writings of the Protestant clergyman and historian John Foxe:

“In this pickle lyeth man by nature, that is, all wee that be Adams children.”

And here’s an example of the usage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (circa 1610-11).

Alonso: “How cam’st thou in this pickle?”
Trinculo: “I haue bin in such a pickle since I saw you last.”

Why is someone in a disagreeable predicament described as “in a pickle”? The OED and Chambers don’t explain, but it seems clear to us that the usage alludes to the sour state of being in a pickling solution.

And where does the expression come from? “The usage is common and natural enough to English to be formed therein,” Chambers says, “but may have been reinforced by Dutch.”

The dictionary cites two Dutch phrases: in de pekel zijn (to be in a pickle) and iemand in de pekel zijn laten, or zitten (to get someone in a pickle).

Chambers says both Dutch phrases were common in the 1500s when the troublesome sense of “pickle” was first recorded in English.

It wasn’t until the late 1600s that the word “pickle” was used to refer to “a whole vegetable, or a piece of one, that has been preserved in vinegar, brine, etc.,” according to citations in the OED.

Oxford describes the use of the term “pickle” for a pickled cucumber as chiefly North American.

In Britain, the usual term is a dill cucumber or a pickled cucumber, according to Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

In a post on her blog Separated by a Common Language, Murphy says the British use “pickle” or “sweet pickle” for a condiment of chopped vegetables or fruit preserved in vinegar and a sweetener. Americans would refer to such a condiment as relish.

We’ll end with a half-sour comment from the Aug. 29, 2004, issue of the Montreal Gazette: “Today’s studs would sooner immerse themselves in a vat of pickles than spray themselves with Aqua Velva or Old Spice.”

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