Final Word

Country in a pickle, who to carry the can?


It is generally said that South Africa is, politically-, economically and socially in a pickle with many convictions about who should pick up the can for that.

Now, if you say someone or some people is in the pickle or a pickle, it is generally interpreted as an indication of him, her or them being in a difficult position, a spot of bother or trouble. However, it could also be a lot worse that, when one look at the origin and development or the expression.

The word comes from the Dutch word pekel, meaning ‘something piquant,’ and originally referred to a spiced-up, salted vinegar used as a preservative., dating back to the 16th century.

There is however an earlier version of the expression, ‘being in the stew, hinting at a more sinister side to the whole story, dating back 15th century, associated with horror stories of “hapless people who found themselves on the menu” according to one source.

The earliest known recording of such a horror story in the 1440 work The Morte Arthure, which purports to relate part of King Arthur’s diet at a time as: “He soupes all this sesoun with seuen knaue childre, Choppid in a chargour of chalke-whytt syluer, With pekill & powdyre of precious spycez.

In Modern English, it would read: ”He dines all season on seven rascal children, chopped, in a bowl of white silver, with pickle and precious spices.”

Then, there are a few references from the 16th century to ill pickle, mongs others in Shakespeare’s 1610 work The Tempest from a conversation between Alonso and Trinculo, that go like this:


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.”

The use of the expression has clearly shifted to a more figurative one, alluding to a state of being so mixed-up as vegetables in a stew and in da ger of being, fugitively speaking, chewed to pieces.

But. before it became the dominant use, the was still the more literal use in the late 1700 in the Duke of Rutland’s Journal of a Tour to the Northern Parts of Great Britain, in which he relates how he came across the 350 year-old body of Thomas Beaufort, preserved in pickle “as perfect as when living.”

As was the custom in the navy at the time, sailors who died at sea were preserved in pickle until they could buried on land – in the case of Admiral Horatio Nelson, however, not pickle, but brandy was used to preserve the body. 

Who is to carry the can?

If the country and or the government is in a pickle, it is natural that the question would be asked who is to blame for it, who should accept responsibility and/or should someone be punished for it?

All these questions can, in a way could be squeezed into one: Who should pick up or carry the can?

Originally, the “carrying” of the responsibility, according to some sources, is a corruption of an old Gaelic French military name cannee for a type of tent or cover to keep gun powder dry. The soldiers in charge of the cannee had a vital responsibility, and from there the notion of ‘carrying the can indicating accepting responsibility.

But then, not all etymologists agree with this explanation, although most accept that is derives from military services slang. The first known recording of the term is from the British Royal Navy in the 1920s, while the compiler of the Dictionary of Historical Slang, Eric Partridge, claims it date back to the late 19th century, suggesting that it refers to “the member of a gang or party who fetches the beer for all and then has the melancholy task of returning the empty”

Other sources claim that the origin date back to the days of servitude when menial tasks had to be performed for the benefit of others, such as the scullery maid working for the head cook.

It, however, also often used in the sense of picking up the blame for other’s mistakes, like in a 1957 newspaper report about “senior officers who were forced to ‘carry the can’ because of the misdeeds of others.”

Final word

However, in the present South African political environment, it would seem that there is no one wiling to pick up or carry the can. Apparently, passing the buck, is the only game in town.

And, that expression come from the world of gambling, as in the card game of poker.

Unfortunately, the stakes on the table entails the future of the country.

by Piet Coetzer

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