out of the frying pan into the fire

We use the phrase “out of the frying pan into the fire” to describe moving from a bad or difficult situation to a worse one. This often happens because we’re trying to escape from the bad spot we’re in.

This proverb originates from a Greek saying about running from the smoke right into the flame. Its first recorded use was in a poem by Germanicus Caesar (15 BCE – 19 CE) in the Greek Anthology. The poem tells the story about a hare in flight from a dog which it attempts to escape by jumping into the sea, only to be seized by a “sea-dog.” 

The earliest recorded use of this idiom in English was by Thomas More in the course of a pamphlet war with William Tyndale, in The Confutacyon of Tyndales Answere (1532). As it happens, More was deemed a traitor for refusing to approve Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn and Tyndale ended up being burned as a heretic in 1536. Those two certainly landed in some hot fire.

In Italy, author Laurentius Abstemius wrote a collection of 100 fables, the Hecatomythium, during the 1490s, based mostly on popular idioms and proverbs of the day. One of Abstemius’s fables tells the story of some fish thrown live into a frying pan of boiling fat. One of them urges its fellows to save their lives by jumping out but, when they do so, they fall into the burning coals and curse their brother’s bad advice. The fabulist concludes: “This fable warns us that when we are avoiding present dangers, we should not fall into even worse peril.”

The fish tale was included in Latin collections of Aesop’s fables from the following century onwards. Some of the fables traditionally attributed to Aesop, who lived in Greece in the 5th century, cannot be traced any earlier than a few centuries after his death. A great many others have their roots in more modern times.

I don’t know about that “sea-dog” seizing the hare, though. I thought a sea-dog was a sailor.

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