Horns of a dilemma

Origin of: Horns of a dilemma

Horns of a dilemma

In popular usage, to be caught on the horns of a dilemma is to be in a position of doubt or perplexity. More correctly, it means a choice between alternatives that are or appear equally unfavourable. The origin of the metaphor is obscure but most probably refers to the sharp horns of a bull because there is no escaping them, whichever option is taken. The word dilemma itself derives from the Greek di meaning two and lemma meaning assumption or proposition. Some purists maintain that the word dilemma itself involves a choice between two equally unfavourable alternatives and therefore to talk about the horns of a dilemma is tautological. Medieval scholars obviously disagreed. Writing in Latin, they coined the term argumentum cornutum meaning a horned argument which is the origin of the expression. The first reference to this horned argument in English is found in the works of Nicholas Udall in 1546 in his translation of the Latin adages collected by the Dutch scholar Erasmus. The popular use of the expression i.e. outside of specialised rhetoric and logic debate, was not until the 19th century.