My informant said he has heard his parents say this expression ever since he was little; however, he did not understand the meaning behind it until he was “probably a teenager.” He says it refers to “being in a tough spot,” or getting caught in a predicament where either of the two outcomes are unfavorable. The expression “between a rock and a hard place” presents a visual to this dilemma. He also mentioned a synonymous expression: “picking the lesser of two evils.”
In 2004, Aron Ralston used this phrase for the title of his autobiography, which retells his experience while “canyoning” in the Utah desert. For Ralston, “between a rock and a hard place” sums up the predicament he found himself in after a boulder trapped his arm. While hiking deep into the Utah desert, away from regularly used trails, Ralston suddenly fell into a ravine and a boulder crushed his arm. He was forced between two options: amputate his arm himself or die from thirst or starvation. After being stuck in the ravine for over five days, he finally decided to cut his arm with a dull knife. Therefore, “between a rock and a hard place” is a play on words and quite literal interpretation of what happened to him. Ralston’s book also influenced the 2010 movie adaptation 127 Hours, starring James Franco. The popularity of the movie brought even more fame to Aron Ralston’s book and continued to circulate the American saying.