‘Up the River Without a Paddle’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on December 23, 2022

Did someone tell you they were ‘up the river without a paddle’? What does this mean, and where does the phrase come from? We’ll look at the answer to these questions and more in this article.

In brief, ‘up the river without a paddle’ means being in a difficult situation that isn’t easy to resolve. A common version of the idiom is ‘up the creek without a paddle.’

What Does 'Up the River Without a Paddle' Mean?

If someone is ‘up the river without a paddle,’ it means that they are in a tough or difficult situation without an easy way to resolve the situation. Another way to say this idiom is to say, ‘up the creek without a paddle.’

This idiom brings to mind a picture of someone being stranded in a canoe without any way of moving the canoe. You can see how being stuck in a river without any way to steer or move the canoe communicates the idea of being in a serious predicament or in trouble.

Where Does 'Up the River Without a Paddle' Come From?

Some sources say the first use of ‘up the creek without a paddle’ was more than one hundred years ago, in 1918, when it was used by President Harry S. Truman.

However, others say that it has been in use since the late-1800s and originates from military slang.

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the ‘creek’ version of the phrase first appears in print in the 1910s but doesn’t really start gaining traction until the 1940s. It had climbed steadily in use since then until about 2011, when the phrase started to decline in usage.

We can see from the Ngram viewer that ‘up the creek without a paddle’ is a much more common version of the phrase than ‘up the river without a paddle.’ That being said, anyone who understands what ‘up the creek without a paddle’ means will also understand the point of ‘up the river without a paddle.’

It’s worth noting that ‘up the creek without a paddle’ is sometimes shortened to ‘up the creek.’ However, if you shorten ‘up the river without a paddle’ to ‘up the river,’ you’re actually using a slang phrase that means getting sent to prison.

Examples of 'Up the River Without a Paddle' In Sentences

Let’s look at how you can use ‘up the river without a paddle,’ ‘up the creek without a paddle,’ and ‘up the creek’ in a sentence.

  • “If I’m not at the office by 8:30 sharp, I’m going to be up the river without a paddle.
  • “When the car wouldn’t start, and both our cell phones were dead, we knew we were up the creek.”
  • “This meeting was just the canary in the coal mine. If they start calling us into the office one by one, we know we’re really up the creek without a paddle.”
  • “Sally was always cutting corners rather than doing things the right way the first time. That’s why it didn’t surprise me at all when she called and said she was up the river without a paddle.”
  • “I can tell that you’re up the creek. Spill the tea and tell me what’s going on so I can help you.”

Other Ways to Say 'Up the River Without a Paddle'

Wondering what other words and phrases you can use to say that you’re ‘up the river without a paddle’ or ‘up the creek’? Here are some synonyms you might use instead:

  • In a pickle
  • In hot water
  • Out on a limb
  • On-the-spot
  • On the hot seat
  • Between a rock and a hard place
  • In a dilemma
  • In a predicament
  • Between the devil and the deep blue sea

Are you looking to learn other English phrases to add to your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for more interesting adages, phrases, and idioms!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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