In a pickle
In a quandary or some other difficult position.
The earliest pickles were spicy sauces made to accompany meat dishes. Later, in the 16th century, the name pickle was also given to a mixture of spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative. The word 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]
The figurative version of the phrase, meaning simply 'in a fix' or, in the almost identical 19th century phrase 'in a stew', arrives during the next century. Thomas Tusser's Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, 1573, contains this useful advice:
Reape barlie with sickle, that lies in ill pickle.
Presumably, barley that wasn't in ill pickle, i.e. the corn that was standing up straight, would be cut with the larger and more efficient scythe.
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:
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.
A return to the more literal interpretation of the phrase came about in the late 1700s. The Duke of Rutland had toured Britain and wrote up his experiences in a travelogue - Journal of a Tour to the Northern Parts of Great Britain, 1796. He was present at the disinterment of the 350 year-old body of Thomas Beaufort, which he claimed to have been pickled and 'as perfect as when living':
The corpse was done up in a pickle, and the face wrapped up in a sear cloth.
Just nine years later the most celebrated personage ever to have been literally in a pickle - Admiral Horatio Nelson, met his end, although some pedants might argue that, being preserved in brandy, he found himself in more of a liquor than a pickle.
See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.