Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 25, 2011

If you get out of one problem and the solution saddles you with an even bigger problem, others may say you are “out of the frying pan into the fire” when describing the overall situation to their friends and colleagues.

A little over a decade ago, the Daily Gazette of Schenectady, New York ran a Letter To The Editor from Nadine Putorti of Rotterdam in their February 9, 2000 edition.  The title of the letter stated that “America Has Had Enough Of The Clintons.”  The last paragraph was:

Let’s not jump out of the frying pan into the fire.  I believe many people have had enough of the Clintons.  I sure hope Mayor Guiliani is our next senator from New York state.

In Connecticut, the Bridgeport Herald published an article on August 19, 1900 entitled “Discipline, Not Total Abstinence, Is What Is Needed.”  It began with:

To-morrow marks the beginning of the battle in behalf of total abstinence at “Camp Vichy,” Niantic,so far as is related to the Connecticut National Guard.  It may be well, just before the battle, to say a few things that have a flavoring of common sense, and like most things flavored with that sort of extract, they may not set real well with certain Members of the national guard.

The crux of the matter, in the reporter’s opinion, is this:

Total abstinence for the national guard will be found as demoralizing for the guard as total inebriety. The heads of the guard seem to have jumped from one extreme to the other — out of the frying pan into the fire — whereas, if they had gone about the matter properly, they would have recommended the happy medium of temperance and discipline.

William Wordsworth wrote a letter to Francis Wrangham on July 12, 1807 asking for help with the  publisher of Critical Review magazine.  What he was hoping to avoid was having C.V. le Grice review his poems as it was alleged that le Grice held a grudge against Coleridge and his friends which, of course, included Wordsworth.  In a letter from William Wordsworth to Francis Wrangham dated November 4, 1807, he wrote:

But alas! either for me, or for the Critical Review, or both!  it has been out of the frying-pan into the fire.

In 1742, Lord Hervey, son of the Earl of Bristol,  wrote a poem that threw in a barb at Sir Robert Walpole.  The final verse reads:

For though you have made that rogue Walpole retire
You are out of the frying-pan into the fire:
But since to the Protestant line I’m a friend
I tremble to think how these changes may end.

Edward Taylor published his book “Poems” in 1700.  In his poem, “A Threnodiall Dialogue between The Second and Third Ranks” this verse appears:

Than us, alas! What, would you fain aspire
Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire?
Change States with you with all our hearts we would
Nay, and give boot therewith, if that we could.

However, in the end, the phrase can be traced back to a religious argument between William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English, and Sir Thomas More. The argument started in 1528 when Sir Thomas More published his paper entitled, ‘A Dialoge concerning Heresyes.’  This led to a response from William Tyndale in 1530 with his paper entitled, ‘An answerer unto Sir Thomas Mores Dialoge.’

Not to be outdone, in 1532, Sir Thomas More returned fire with his paper entitled, ‘The Confutacyon of Tyndales Answere,’ wherein Sir Thomas More said this of William Tyndale:

featly conuayed himself out of the frying panne fayre into the fyre.

The phrase was used with ease in 1532 and implies that it was part of common language at the time of King Henry VIII’s reign.  Unfortunately, Idiomation was unable to find a published reference prior to this exchange between William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More.

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