Dear WD: I’m hoping you can answer this one for me. A friend and I were discussing the meaning of the term “Between a rock and a hard place,” and he said that he had heard that the phrase was originally “Between a rock and a hard plate.” He said that the “plate” was a steel plate attached to the bow of sailing ships to prevent damage in case the ship hit a rock. Thus the worst place to find oneself would be between the rock and this plate. Is my friend correct? — M. M., New York, NY.
You friend certainly has come up with an interesting theory, although I don’t think I’d choose him for a sailing companion. “In case the ship hit a rock” is a bit too cavalier an approach to nautical safety for my taste.
I’m not an expert on the history of sailing, but I have never heard of such plates, though I could be wrong. It seems to me that the idea presumes that the ship would hit the rocks bow-first, which is hardly inevitable. In any case, the phrase “Between a rock and a hard place,” meaning to be in a difficult position or to be faced with a choice between two evils, does not come from any such contraption.
The phrase is nautical in origin, however, so your friend was on the right track. “Between a rock and a hard place” is a modern, non-literary variation on the much older “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Homer, in “The Odyssey” (written about 850 B.C.), describes a perilously narrow sea passage his hero must navigate between Scylla, a terrifying monster, and Charybdis, a massive whirlpool. From Homer’s time up until fairly recently, “Between Scylla and Charybdis” was a common metaphor for a perilous or difficult situation. With classical studies somewhat in eclipse these days (putting it mildly), the less demanding “Between a rock and a hard place” is far more commonly heard.