Could you imagine a person who is not familiar with our word idiosyncrasies to know that “in a pickle” has nothing to do with food but rather some sort of trouble? Actually, the idiom “in a pickle” (in a mess) is derived from food.
As background information, the earliest reference (phrases.org.uk) I found was when the 16th century Dutch or Low German used pekel when referring to a preservative of spices and salted vinegar. Then, in the 17th century, cucumbers and gherkins were vegetables that were also preserved and were called pickles.
So, how did we get from food to “in trouble” —
First, there is reference to King Arthur’s diet in The Morte Arthure when it is written (English translation) “He dines all season on seven rascal children, chopped, in a bowl of white silver, with pickle and precious spices.” I might say that those children were “in a pickle”.
But, who really gave the term the meaning we know today was Shakespeare when he used it in The Tempest : TRINCULO speaks “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last…”
I believe that every person has been “in a pickle” at least once, and sometimes a situation can be “in a pickle”. Take, for instance, the headline Reuters (U.S. edition, November 8, 2012) gave when explaining the recent passage of legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington: “Pot legalization puts bankers in a pickle”. Actually, it’s not the bankers who will be “in a pickle”, but the banks themselves (which in turn are the stockholders) because banks fall under federal rules and can not keep money for what the federal government considers illegal business. Oh, what a mess, that recent passage has opened a “can of worms” and I can’t even imagine how any banker will deal with “this pickle”!