Pick Your Poison: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
July 18, 2023

The idiom "pick your poison" refers to the act of choosing between two or more equally unpleasant or undesirable options. It can also be used lightheartedly in social situations where one has to make a choice between different alternatives, typically in the context of beverages or food. It's a colorful way of saying that you should make a choice, even if it's difficult.

In short:

  • When you use this idiom, you mean that you or someone else should make a choice, even if all available options are undesirable.
  • In a more casual context, it can imply choosing between various alternatives, such as deciding what drink to have at a bar.

What Does "Pick Your Poison" Mean?

"Pick your poison" is a common English idiom that signifies the necessity to make a choice between two or more undesirable or unfavorable alternatives. It carries a sense of resignation, understanding that while the decision may not lead to a pleasing result, a choice still has to be made.

Let's delve into its principal meanings and usage:

  • "Pick your poison" is used when someone has to make a choice between options that are not appealing, often choosing the lesser of two evils.
  • In a social setting, such as at a party or a bar, the phrase might be used playfully when offering a choice of beverages or food.
  • Some other ways to express “pick your poison” could include "choose your fate, or "decide your doom." However, these alternatives are more dramatic and less commonly used.

Where Does "Pick Your Poison" Come From?

"Pick your poison" is a phrase that started in the mid-1800s when people called alcoholic drinks "poison." In Australia, they even called bars "poison shops." Bartenders would ask customers what drink they wanted by saying this phrase. Over time, people began using "pick your poison" to mean choosing between two or more not-so-great options. It's like saying, "the lesser of two evils."

So, when you hear "pick your poison," it means you have to make a choice, even if none of the choices are perfect. Some people think that the phrase might come from the Latin word "toxicum," which means "poison" and is related to the word "intoxicate." In the past, people also said things like "nominate your poison," "name your poison," and "choose your poison."

Historical Examples

"Please nominate your poison, gentlemen. "

- Spirit of the Times and the New York Sportsman, 1864

"Step right up, strangers, and name your poison!"

- Two Boy Gold Miners, Or, Lost in the Mountains, 1909

"You may choose your poison — but just one."

- The Last Ditch, 1916

"Pick your poison is the name of the game, and the referee had better come up with rules that protect the public's health."

- Nutrition and Human Needs Hearings, 1973

10 Examples of "Pick Your Poison" in Sentences

To better comprehend the idiom's usage, let's examine its use in a variety of contexts:

  • When it comes to dieting, you have to pick your poison: either cut down on carbs or fat.
  • Ring me when you pick your poison. Do you want to go to the movies or the mall?
  • Public transport or driving in rush hour traffic – pick your poison.
  • You must take a shot and pick your poison: face the boss or your ex?
  • He presented me with two contracts and said, "Pick your poison."
  • As the pinch hitter of the team, it was his prerogative to pick his poison - whether to play defensively or offensively.
  • Between staying in a job you hate and facing unemployment, sometimes you have to pick your poison.
  • You must pick your poison in the amusement park depending on what kind of experience you want.
  • Between a high-interest loan and selling my car to fund my business, I had to pick my poison.
  • Just for giggles, they decided to pick their poison from the wildest rides in the amusement park.

Examples of "Pick Your Poison" in Pop Culture

The phrase "pick your poison" regularly appears in pop culture, signifying the need to make a choice.

Let's explore some instances:

  • "Pick Your Poison" is a common album title for several music artists and bands like Famous Last Words, Selwyn Birchwood, 45 Grave, and Henry Callaghan.
  • "Pick Your Poison" is also a popular card game involving making difficult and humorous choices.
  • "Pick Your Poison" is the title of an episode of the TV series Good Girls (2019).
  • "Ruby Redfort Pick Your Poison" is a thrilling book by Lauren Child that revolves around the adventures of Ruby Redfort, a 13-year-old American code-cracking genius.

Other/Different Ways to Say "Pick Your Poison"

There are several other expressions that convey a similar meaning to "pick your poison."

Here are some of them:

  • Choose your fate
  • Select your difficulty
  • Decide your doom
  • Choose the lesser of two evils
  • Make your choice
  • Select your option
  • Decide your preference
  • Make your selection
  • Opt for your undesirable
  • Choose your undesirable

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Pick Your Poison":

  • What does "pick your poison" mean?

"Pick your poison" means to make a choice between two or more unfavorable or unpleasant options. It can also be used in a more casual or playful context, such as deciding on a drink at a bar.

  • How can I use "pick your poison" in a sentence?

You can use "pick your poison" to illustrate a situation where someone has to make a choice between several less than ideal options. For example, "If you want to pick your poison for tonight's movie genre, that's fine with me."

  • Where does the idiom "pick your poison" come from?

The phrase "pick your poison," which implies making a choice between less-than-ideal alternatives, traces its origins back to the mid-19th century when alcoholic beverages were colloquially referred to as "poison."

  • Is the idiom "pick your poison" used only in negative situations?

While often used in scenarios involving difficult decisions, "pick your poison" can also be used in more lighthearted contexts, such as choosing a drink or dessert at a restaurant.

  • Can "pick your poison" refer to choosing between multiple options?

Yes, the idiom can be used when choosing between multiple options, not just two. However, it's typically used when all the options have some negative or undesirable aspect.

  • Is "pick your poison" used globally?

Yes, while the idiom is of English origin, it is recognized and used in many other cultures and languages, especially in colloquial or informal conversations.

  • Can "pick your poison" be used in formal writing or speeches?

"Pick your poison" is generally considered informal and is more often used in spoken language. However, it can be used in formal writing or speeches for rhetorical effect or to create a connection with the audience.

  • Does "pick your poison" always imply harmful choices?

Not necessarily. While the literal meaning pertains to harmful substances, the idiom is used metaphorically to imply difficult or unfavorable choices. These choices may not be harmful, but they typically involve some level of discomfort or challenge.

  • What are the synonyms for "pick your poison"?

Some synonyms for "pick your poison" include "choose your fate," "select your difficulty," and "choose the lesser of two evils."

  • Can "pick your poison" be used positively?

Yes, while typically used in negative or challenging situations, the phrase can also be used positively or playfully, such as when choosing between various enjoyable options at a restaurant or bar.

Final Thoughts About "Pick Your Poison"

"Pick your poison" means choosing between a few bad choices. This fun saying is all about deciding when every option has its own problems or challenges.

Here's a quick recap:

  • "Pick your poison" signifies making a difficult choice between unfavorable options.
  • It may have originated from the mid-1800s when alcoholic drinks were called "poison.
  • Despite its grim origins, the phrase also applies in a lighthearted, casual context.

The idiom is a testament to life's complexities, where we are often faced with decisions that don't always have a clear or desirable path. In such situations, it reminds us that we must choose and move forward, as challenging as the choices may be.

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