In a Pickle: Words for When You're in Trouble

When you’ve painted yourself in a corner, stirred up a hornet’s nest, or put yourself between a rock and a hard place, perhaps the best thing to do is talk about it, and that’s why there are so many expressions for being in a pickle. Whether you're up a creek without a paddle or just want to be prepared for future predicaments, these words will have you covered.

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Celebrate National Pickle Day the Wordy Way

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definitions & notes only words
  1. pickle
    informal terms for a difficult situation
    On the trail of real wildlife smugglers, our correspondent finds himself in a journalistic pickle.New York Times (Nov 3, 2017)
    Pickle originally referred to any sauce that was used to preserve meat and to make it more tasty, so to be in a pickle was to be served up, covered in sauce, about to be devoured. No one is sure where the word pickle comes from, but it was probably borrowed from Middle Dutch at the beginning of the fifteenth century. By the beginning of the Eighteenth century, the word had come to mean “cucumber preserved in brine”, its most common definition today.
  2. conundrum
    a difficult problem
    It highlights beneficial applications, risks, and ethical conundrums of virtual reality, including its misuse or excessive use, in a possible not-too-distant future.Slate (Nov 2, 2017)
    A conundrum , which means a riddle or a puzzle, sounds like one of those words with a long, complex Latin history, and that’s exactly the point — to sound like one, without actually being one. Conundrum was made up by Oxford University students in the 1590s when, without electricity, which meant no radios or televisions, never mind iPhones, scholars would amuse themselves by making words up in pseudo-Latin.
  3. plight
    a situation from which extrication is difficult
    Fiji and other Pacific island nations are particularly vulnerable to rising seas and changing weather and want the world to understand their plight.Seattle Times (Nov 5, 2017)
  4. buffalo
    intimidate or overawe
    I'm not some newcomer that you can buffalo with that nonsense.
    The verb buffalo is less well-known than the city in New York or the animal. It means to “be overwhelmed, overawed, with alarm,” the reaction a nervous person might have to being in a pickle. When you simply don’t know how to handle or get out of a situation, you can say that the situation has you buffaloed .
  5. muddle
    a confused multitude of things
    In the less-successful stage adaptation, directed and choreographed by Matthew Bourne, which opened Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, the ending is somewhat of a muddle.Washington Post (Oct 11, 2017)
  6. discombobulated
    having self-possession upset; thrown into confusion
    “Everyone on the sideline was discombobulated. Just shock. Like, ‘what now?’,”Washington Post (Oct 30, 2017)
    Discombobulated is, like conundrum, a word that someone just came up with. It embodies the state of being completely confused. It is important to point out that in terms of usage, discombobulated does not refer to everyday, run-of-the-mill confusion. Confusion that leaves you discombobulated is not confusion you can just brush off. To be discombobulated is to be shaken to the core by something that doesn’t make sense.
  7. confounded
    perplexed by many conflicting situations or statements
    He worked at the intersection of engineering practice, academic physics and abstract mathematics, and wrote papers that confounded all three audiences.Nature (Sep 12, 2017)
  8. quandary
    state of uncertainty in a choice between unfavorable options
    Guo’s asylum request poses a diplomatic quandary for the Trump administration, which must decide whether to expel a high-profile Chinese dissident or risk infuriating Beijing.Washington Post (Sep 7, 2017)
  9. dilemma
    state of uncertainty in a choice between unfavorable options
    As with many long-running games, this success creates an interesting dilemma for its developers: how do you build something new without disrupting the existing audience?The Verge (Nov 8, 2017)
    The word dilemma refers to the type of situation where you have two choices, both of which are equally unfavorable or equally wonderful, and you can't decide. The problem with a dilemma is that often one is forced to choose between the two options, and it is necessary to opt for the lesser of two evils or the least painful outcome.
  10. predicament
    an unpleasant or difficult situation
    Alex’s predicament presented a different type of puzzle to solve, twisted and dark and untidy with the quirks of the human mind.Washington Post (Oct 13, 2017)
  11. dumbfound
    be a mystery or bewildering to
    Dumbfounded I stared at him speechless and he said to me “what’s a matter?Washington Times (Oct 18, 2017)
    This word is a good one to describe how someone appears when they are really puzzled, just absolutely amazed and mystified at how severely trapped they really are. Dumb- in this instance refers to a meaning the word has had since Old English, “mute, speechless.” The -found element comes from the second part of confound, a word which means “to mix up or confuse”.
  12. mystify
    be puzzling or bewildering to
    Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who is impatient with academics who are vain about being unintelligible, confesses himself mystified by the “circulating” jargon.Washington Post (Nov 3, 2017)
  13. perplex
    be a mystery or bewildering to
    On Monday’s show, Rachel described this dynamic as “strange to the point of perplexing,” which is clearly correct.MSNBC (Oct 25, 2017)
  14. bemuse
    cause to be confused emotionally
    She seems vaguely bemused by any attempts to frame her career as anything more than a series of lucky opportunities and intuitive choices.Economist (Jun 30, 2017)
  15. imbroglio
    an intricate and confusing interpersonal situation
    During the campaign, Ryan’s support for Trump fluctuated during various imbroglios in which Trump was caught up, while McConnell largely stayed above the fray.Washington Post (Feb 16, 2017)
    This word refers to an entire situation that is a mess, not just individual people in a bind. An imbroglio is a jumble, from the Italian word imbrogliare which means “to confuse or tangle.” Imbroglio is really only properly used if someone set you up in a big elaborate scheme, not just a jam you got yourself into. Imbroglios involve mistaken identities, revenge plots, accomplices — the stuff of drama, not everyday trials and tribulations.
Created on November 8, 2017 (updated November 11, 2019)

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