Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

2 Responses to “Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?”

  1. Barbara Adams Says:

    Isn’t the new meaning of dilemma exactly what language has always done? Word meanings constantly change. New words are constantly added and old words are dropped. When was the last time you read about couples bundling? We language professionals should embrace the use of “they” when grammatically is should be “it” instead of cringing. It’s hard but we are up to it.

  2. Perry Lassiter Says:

    I personally am up to it. However, I haven’t yet progressed to the point I can hear “lay” used intransitively without at least a frisson of a shudder. I’m told to go with the flow, but keep smashing into the bank.

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