Tuesday, 07 October 2008

The origin and meaning of “(Caught) on the horns of a dilemma”

The origin and meaning of “(Caught) on the horns of a dilemma” turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. The meaning was the easier part, and the origin more difficult.
Meaning : Refers to a situation where one is confronted with making a decision based on two options, the results or consequence of either decision having equally unpleasant results. So, no matter what decision you have to take, the outcome is unfavourable.
From the 1933 print of the Oxford Shorter Dictionary, Dilemma has Greek origins. Di meaning two and lemma an assumption or a premiss. According to the same source dilemma was a form of argument,(Rhetoric), in which an adversary was given the choice of usually 2, "but possibly more" alternatives equally unfavourable. The alternatives are the horns of the dilemma, either of which can cause pain.
The origin of the horns I could not determine. Most refer to the horns of a bull, and even to the devils horns. Somewhere I saw a source that quoted a Greek translation meaning a four legged animal with a tail, but lost the site.
An example of the phrase in modern terms by Oxford " the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men, who all catch at him" (Page 510).


Anonymous said...

In fact it is hard to find the real source of this meaning, but fortunately this kind of decisions are not a every day situation, when they present I usually think of the best outcome of any decision I take.

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liz read said...

Check out Midieval Bestiaries...the ibex dives headfirst down mountains saved only by its horns plunging into the ground, there it is quivering like a fork. Moral the horns represent the two 'good books' (OT and NT) to which one should always turn to solve a problem. Thus the ibex was on "the horns of a dilemma"