In the same pickle?

中国日报网 2013-08-13 11:13



In the same pickle?Reader question:

In the following passage, what does “pickle” mean exactly?

The US has about $2.3tn of money coming in, and it spends about $3.6tn. So imagine you were making $23,000 a year and spending $36,000. What would happen? You’d be in debt, and you’d have to cut your spending. The US is in the same pickle. Except, instead of a few thousand, it has to cut $1.3tn.

My comments:

Here pickle means great difficulty.

If you are paid $23,000 a year and you spend $36,000 annually, and you do this year after year after year after year, you’ll be in the same financial predicament that the United States government finds itself in.

Well, that’s just a comparison. And, frankly speaking, I think they’ve picked a poor example. If you really run a personal debt like that, your problem will be much bigger than whatever fiscal cliff the American government has to face.

Because, you see, your debt is real. America’s government debt, on the other hand, belongs to the American people – it’s the American public who will, eventually, have to pay it off, via tax increases, inflation, one way or another. And so, in theory, if the government wants to keep spending irresponsibly and just don’t care, they can – nobody can stop them doing so.

Which is, in fact, how they put themselves in the current situation in the first place.

By sheer number, though, this is true: The United States is in much much much greater debt than you’ll ever find yourself in – currently $1.3tn that is.

That is, if you understand how much $1.3tn is. I don’t. Immediately, I don’t understand how much $1.3tn is. I know I’ll have to count a lot of zeros out loud to have any faint idea of it and I won’t even bother to do that – I doubt even then I’ll be able to get the hang of it. Suffice to say, I understand it’s a LOT of money.

Back to pickle. Pickle refers to the strong tasting liquid made with vinegar and salt, etc, used to preserve vegetables.

Preserved vegetables have been in existence for thousands of years here. I suppose it’s the same way over there yonder in Britain. This explanation, from

The earliest pickles were spicy sauces made to accompany meat dishes. Later, in the 16th century, the name pickle was also given to a mixture of spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative. The word comes from the Dutch or Low German pekel, with the meaning of ‘something piquant’. Later still, in the 17th century, the vegetables that were preserved, for example cucumbers and gherkins, also came to be called pickles.

As for how the phrase “in a pickle” came to mean difficulty, apparently someone imagined putting themselves in a pickle and instantly found that thought unbearable, hence and so forth. does not have a much better explanation than that, I don’t think, but it does point out that Shakespeare was among the first writers to ever use the phrase – in The Tempest, 1610 (Alonso talking to Trinculo, who’s very drunk):


And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they

Find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?

How camest thou in this pickle?


I have been in such a pickle since I

saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of

my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.

Hence, in short, if you ever encounter someone saying they find themselves in a fine pickle or a pretty pickle, you should know there’s nothing fine and pretty about the situation they’re in. Instead, they’re in a fix, or a fine mess, i.e. a lot of trouble.

Indeed, try to imagine how the United States is ever going to pay off that $1.3tn debt, and you’ll have an idea.

Alright, here are more media examples for you – to see further how it feels like to be in a pickle:

1. Indian companies that expanded at home and abroad during the go-go years up to 2008 face some tough choices. A big chunk of the money they borrowed overseas comes up for redemption over the next two years and with the economy tanking, some of them are finding it tough to pay up. Those that issued bonds convertible into shares are in a fine pickle. The stock market is in the dumps and their shares are now trading below the level the borrowers and lenders expected. International bond-holders do not find the equity worth converting into and want their money back, with interest.

The government is worried that an outflow of $4-5 billion in this financial year on this account could pull down the rupee further. It is thinking of setting up a fund to bail out companies that must pay off their creditors. The prospects of a sovereign ratings downgrade make the picture more worrisome. Reviving investor sentiment is crucial to take some pressure off second-rung companies that were building the India story on borrowed funds. The markets must be made to see India is committed to reforms and macroeconomic stability. The government’s recent decisions on cutting the diesel subsidy and allowing more foreign investments in retail, insurance, pensions and aviation have set the ball rolling. The markets have revived, but to climb further they would expect that the government delivers on its promises of further liberalisation and prudent economic management.

- It’s not a sound plan,, October 16, 2012.

2. The home-ice mystique of the MTS Centre may not be gone for good, but it was on holidays this week and the Winnipeg Jets suffered greatly for it.

With Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, the Jets played three well-regarded Eastern Conference opponents here this week and lost three close games.

Since their troubling, penalty-filled debacle in Tampa more than two weeks ago, Winnipeg has played six straight one-goal games (discounting one empty-net goal) coming out of that 2-4-0, but has lost four in a row at home.

“You have to play on the road so you’re going to have to have that,” Jets coach Claude Noel said after another tight loss. “You have to play a better team game.

“Right now, we’re not playing... we’re playing OK, we’re working but we have to check the puck back better, there are some things we have to do better….”

With a record of 3-5-0 at the MTS Centre and a team not known to be terribly strong away from home, the Jets are in a pretty pickle as they look into the coming week and see five straight road games on the docket.

- Bruins hand Jets another loss at home,, February 17, 2013.

3. The Israelis seem much more confident than the Americans that the Syrian government has recently used small amounts of chemical weapons, including sarin, against rebels in its two-year-old civil war. “The very fact that they have used chemical weapons without any appropriate reaction, is a very worrying development,” General Itai Brun, head of research for Israeli military intelligence, said earlier this week. “It might signal that this is legitimate.”

The latest U.S. intelligence assessment, which meshes with similar British and French reckonings, isn’t tantamount to proof, Miguel Rodriguez, the director of the White House office of legislative affairs, told Congress in a letter Thursday. The Administration, he added, is “pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.”

Syrian officials denied Friday that their government has used chemical weapons. In Damascus, a government official told the Associated Press that Syria “did not and will not use chemical weapons even if it had them.” He accused rebel forces of using them in a March attack outside the northern city of Aleppo. Sharif Shehadeh, a Syrian lawmaker, said the Syrian army “can win the war with traditional weapons” and doesn’t need chemical weapons.

“We need to know the full story,” Hagel told reporters in the Persian Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi, “and get it right.” He added that “any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have been originated with the Assad regime.”

But despite such nuance, some lawmakers were ready for action. They declared that the Syrian government has now crossed a threshold set by President Obama. “It is clear that red lines have been crossed,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the intelligence committee. “Action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use.”

Last August, Obama warned “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Obama finds himself in a pickle: if he does nothing, some will say Assad is pushing him around. If he orders an attack, he’s likely only to degrade, not destroy, Syria’s chemical weapons.

Assuming, of course, that U.S. intelligence knows where they are.

- U.S. Intelligence on Sarin…With a Grain of Salt,, April 26, 2013.

Related stories:

Halo effect?

Throwing them a bone?

Smoking gun evidence?

Political horse trading

Go to Zhang Xin's column


About the author:

Zhang Xin(张欣) has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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