by Liz Walter
Back in 2017, my colleague Kate Woodford wrote a post about words for difficult situations (https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2017/03/22/what-a-nightmare-words-for-difficult-situations/) This post builds on that by offering a selection of idioms that enable us to describe problematic times in a more colourful way.
If you find yourself between a rock and a hard place or between the devil and the deep blue sea, you are in a position where you have to make a choice between two courses of action, both of which you know will have bad consequences:
I was caught between a rock and a hard place: I didn’t want to deceive my family and I knew they wouldn’t approve of the work I was doing, but we really needed the money.
The council is between the devil and the deep blue sea on this issue: local people will be furious if they approve the application for a housing estate, but if they turn it down and the developers appeal, they could face huge legal fees.
On a related theme, if you walk a tightrope, you have to act very carefully in a difficult situation where there are conflicting needs or demands:
They are forced to walk a tightrope between providing modern medical care and respecting local traditions.
As we began researching venues and catering, we realized we were in over our heads and needed help.
He was a good politician but was out of his depth as chancellor.
If someone has you over a barrel, they have put you in a very difficult situation where you have to do what they want you to, and if you have your back to the wall you have serious problems which mean that you do not have much choice about what you can do:
The builders had us over a barrel because if we didn’t pay, the whole project could be delayed by months.
We didn’t want to take out a loan, but we had our backs to the wall.
If someone is experiencing a bad period in their life, we can say they are going through a bad/rough/sticky patch. If their situation is extremely bad or unpleasant, we might say they are going through the mill:
They went through a bit of a sticky patch during the first lockdown.
Poor Jean is really going through the mill with her cancer treatment.
Finally, if you don’t know which way to turn, you do not know what to do in a difficult situation:
I lost my job and I didn’t know which way to turn.
I hope you find these phrases useful, but that you won’t need to use them about yourselves!