If you've ever heard the expression 'out of the frying pan into the fire,' you might have wondered what it means. If so, you're in the right place. In this article, you'll learn the meaning and possible origins of the popular idiom and how to use it in a sentence.
But first, here's the short version:
This saying is a perfect example of how idioms can't be interpreted literally. Of course, we aren't talking about someone or something literally jumping out of a frying pan and into a fire. Having said that, analyzing the literal meaning can often help us understand the intended metaphor.
Imagine being in a frying pan; it is a pretty bad situation, right? Now imagine jumping out of it and ending up in fire. That would be even worse, I think we can all agree.
Say, for instance, that your city of residence finally ousted the corrupt mayor, only to elect a new mayor who was even more corrupt and decided to bring in additional taxes. You might say:
The city's residents celebrated when they finally ousted the corrupt mayor, but their joy was short-lived as the new mayor turned out to be equally corrupt—truly out of the frying pan into the fire.
Common ways to use it are:
The origin of this idiom dates back to medieval Europe. In medieval cooking, people would cook food in a frying pan over an open flame. If a cook needed to move the food or adjust the pan, they might use a long fork or spatula. However, if they were not careful, they could accidentally knock the pan, causing the hot oil or fat inside to spill out and create a fire hazard. So, "out of the frying pan" originally referred to the dangerous situation of hot oil in the pan, and "into the fire" was a literal possibility if the spilled oil caught fire.
But metaphors for going from a bad situation to a worse one have been around for much longer than that, notably in Greek literature. At some point between 15 BCE – 19 CE, Germanicus Caesar wrote three poems that referred to a fable depicting a hare trying to escape from a dog by jumping into the sea, only to be eaten by a sea dog (dogfish shark).
There's no record of this fable other than the three poems that refer to it, but we do have an epigram by Antipater of Sidon (c. 2nd century BCE), a Greek poet known for his witty and often humorous epigrams. This particular epigram is about a hare trying to escape a dog by jumping into the sea but meeting a tragic end.
Here is the epigram in Greek:
Λέπον γαὶ τρίτῳ λαιὰ πέσσοντα λόγοι
Ἡράκλειτε, τάχα καὶ τῷ τέλει χαίρεις.
Ἀλλ᾿ οὐδὲ πόντος διαλέγεται, ἀλλ᾿ ἀκτῆ
Δρυμοὶ τῷ λυκῷ καὶ τοῖς ἐμπρηθοῦσι.
And here's a translation of the epigram in English:
A hare that, trying a third time, could not escape
The dog, Heraclitus, at last, perhaps, finds joy.
But not even the sea is open to it; only the shore,
The lairs of the wolves, and those who kindle fire.
Skip a few centuries, and we get to Thomas More's critique of William Tyndale in 1532.
He stated that Tyndale:
featly conuayed himself out of the frying panne fayre into the fyre
And that was the first recorded use of this idiom with the analogy of a frying pan and a fire.
Now we've covered the idiom's meaning and its possible origins, here are some examples of it being used in a sentence.
After finishing a demanding project at the office, he was hoping for a break, but he was quickly assigned to an even more labor-intensive task, leaving him feeling like he had gone from the frying pan into the fire.
She went from the frying pan into the fire when she learned that not only did she need an organ donation but that they couldn't find her a donor.
The refugees thought they were safe when they reached the neighboring country, but they had jumped from the frying pan into the fire as they encountered a new set of challenges at the border.
Moving from his old job to a higher-paying position in a new company seemed like a great opportunity, but he soon realized that the new role came with a much more challenging and complex set of responsibilities, making him feel like he had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.
Seeking refuge from the storm in a nearby cave turned out to be going from the frying pan into the fire when they discovered it was inhabited by a bear.
Trying to escape his overbearing parents' control, he moved in with his friends, only to realize he had leaped from the frying pan into the fire as his friends were even stricter.
He quit his awful job after his was hired by a different organization, but little did he know that he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
After surviving a shipwreck and reaching a deserted island, the castaways soon realized they had gone from the frying pan into the fire as they struggled to find food and fresh water.
Her apartment was full of mould, so she moved to a different spot, only to find she'd gone from the frying pan into the fire as the new place was infested with cockroaches.
He'd only just recovered from his breakdown when his father died. A true case of going from the frying pan into the fire.
With English being such a rich language, there's always more than one way to say something. The same is true of 'Out of the frying pan into the fire.'
Here are just some of the other ways you can say it:
Well, that pretty much concludes this article on the popular idiom. If you know someone who went from a bad situation to a worse one or where a bad situation turned critical, you can say that they went from the frying pan into the fire.
Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for even more idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!