on the horns of a dilemma

Confronted with two equally disagreeable choices.

Finding yourself in a position where you’re faced with two equally unpleasant options appears to be a common human condition. Language usually reflects the realities we experience, and there are several phrases that express this problem of choices, for example: ‘the lesser of two evils,’ ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea,’ ‘between Scylla and Charybdis,’ ‘an offer you can’t refuse,’ and ‘between a rock and a hard place.’

This is an American phrase, appearing in the early 20th century, but it’s merely one of the many ways of stating a problem which exists in all cultures.

The first known example in print of ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is in the American Dialect Society’s publication Dialect Notes V, 1921:

“To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics; sporadic in California.”

In 1917 a dispute arose between copper mining companies and mineworkers in Bisbee, Arizona. The workers, some belonging to labor unions, went to the company management with demands for better pay and conditions. They were refused and many workers at the Bisbee mines were deported to New Mexico.

We might guess, given that the mineworkers were faced with a choice between harsh and poorly paid work at the rock-face and unemployment and poverty on the other, that this is the source of the phrase, but this is only a guess.

A recent example of the use of the expression is found in the 2010 film 127 Hours, based on Aron Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Ralston’s memoir recounts the 127 hours he spent alone and trapped by a boulder in Robbers Roost, Utah, after a climbing accident, eventually opting for the ‘hard place’ of freeing himself by cutting off part of his right arm. 

But I was talking about ‘on the horns of a dilemma.’ The interesting word here is ‘dilemma,’ which comes from the Greek language as a compound noun meaning ‘two premises.’ Eventually a ‘lemma’ was also called a horn, apparently for two reasons. One, horns usually come in pairs and two, their sharp ends are both painful and dangerous if you get caught on them.

A dilemma, in logic, is a form of argument where a participant finds himself in the embarrassing predicament of having to make a choice of either of two premises, both of which are obnoxious. It is a trap set by an astute person to catch an unwary one, like answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

Of course, there are classic refutations for a logical dilemma. You can take the left horn, or you can take right horn, or, you can go between the horns and deny that there are only two choices. 

However, I’m not sure there is any middle way to get out of the question of whether or not you’ve stopped beating your wife. “Maybe,” perhaps?

Doesn’t work for me!

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