Have you ever been “in a pickle?” I know I still use this term today when I’m in trouble or caught in a bind. In a pickle can easily translate to being in a quandary or some other difficult position. The word pickle comes from the Dutch or Low German pekel, with the meaning of ‘something piquant’. Later still, in the 17th century, the vegetables that were preserved, for example cucumbers and gherkins, also came to be called pickles.
The ‘in trouble’ meaning of ‘in a pickle’ was an allusion to being as disoriented and mixed up as the stewed vegetables that made up pickles. This was partway to being a literal allusion, as fanciful stories of the day related to hapless people who found themselves on the menu. The earliest known use of pickle in English contains such an citation. The Morte Arthure, circa 1440, relates the gory imagined ingredients of King Arthur’s diet:
He soupes all this sesoun with seuen knaue childre, Choppid in a chargour of chalke-whytt syluer, With pekill & powdyre of precious spycez.
[He dines all season on seven rascal children, chopped, in a bowl of white silver, with pickle and precious spices]
There are a few references to ill pickles and this pickle etc. in print in the late 16th century, and Shakespeare was one of the first to use in a pickle, in The Tempest, 1610. He ‘popularized’ this specific term’ rather than ‘coin’ it. “IN A PICKLE” appears in The Tempest (Act 5, scene 1); a related form appears in Antony and Cleopatra (Act 2, scene 5).
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.
Here Shakespeare is probably playing on the fact that alcohol, which is sometimes used in the pickling process, has certainly contributed to the pickle Trinculo is in.
– raf –