Out of your depth: idioms that describe difficult situations

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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.

In over your head and out of your depth are swimming metaphors which describe being in a situation that is too difficult for you to deal with:

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!

16 thoughts on “Out of your depth: idioms that describe difficult situations

  1. Denis

    Thanks, the phrases are very useful indeed!
    ‘Have a bumpy ride’ & ‘catch-22’ would be splendid additions to this post.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, that’s a good one, though it’s not as widely known as the ones I’ve mentioned above. I have a strong memory of my dad using it when I was a teen and being shocked that I didn’t know it!

      1. Abdirizak

        It was interesting and fantastic phrasal verbs .
        We need a bundle of phrasal verbs like these ,which are daily used.

      1. Liz Walter

        They are characters (monsters) in Greek mythology, who lived in a narrow area of water that Odysseus had to travel through.

    2. Irina Grinkova

      well, I would think most of the people in UK nowadays do not know the meaning of “Scylla and Charybdis”, apart from ones, who might happen to study mythology or literature specifically, because I believe that there are very limited amount of people, who do really like to read Homer out of their own interest… Yet, I might be mistaken…

  2. Denis

    Dear Cambridge Words,

    With regard to the improvement of this online dictionary, I’d like to point out that the actual pronunciation of the words wound (both a noun meaning an injury and a verb meaning to hurt feelings/to injure the body) is inaccurate. You can check it by following this link https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/wound and clicking on speaker icons under the two words (a noun and a verb accordingly) contained in the ‘AMERICAN DICTIONARY’ section of the page.
    The phonetic transcriptions of both of these words are correct – /wund/, but the actual pronunciation is not – the voice says /wɑʊnd/.

    At the same time, I’d really like to take the opportunity to propose a new entry in the dictionary. Albeit I remember what you’ve previously told me, I just want you to be a bit more receptive as well as tolerant. Don’t be afraid of taking a pioneering approach to the official introduction of new, colourful idioms to the world.
    Today’s idiom is ‘don’t/you can’t blame a mirror for your ugly face’, which means one shouldn’t blame their mistakes or failures on things that have nothing to do with these mistakes or failures.
    As you can see, this idiom is very similar in meaning to the one saying ‘a bad workman blames his tools’.

    Best wishes from Russia 🙂

    1. Dear Denis,
      Thank you for reporting this issue with the pronunciation of ‘wound’ in the online Cambridge Dictionary. Customer feedback is important to us for product development. Our editorial team have advised that you are correct and that this will be amended in a future update.

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