They say you’re “between a rock and a hard place”. The meaning is clear: none of your choices are good ones.
But where did this phrase originate? Like many American phrases we use today, it comes from the early 20th century. (Other cultures have similar sayings in different forms that had their own separate evolutions.)
It’s likely the rock and the hard place came from the U.S. Bankers’ Panic of 1907. The first in-print reference of the phrase comes from 1921 by the American Dialect Society: “To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.”
It was indeed a panicked time in America, especially for the mining and railroad industries. Programs and organizations lost much of their funding.
In 1917, Arizona copper mining companies and miners had a feud. The miners made demands that the companies did not match, and some miners were shipped out as a result. The situation these miners faced was indeed a rock and a hard place, popularizing the phrase and putting it into popular use. The late 1930’s saw the phrase being printed more and more into newspapers.