Printable Version
Pronunciation: tri-lem Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A difficult choice between three equally unappealing alternatives.

Notes: We often face dilemmas in life, less often trilemmas. A dilemma originally referred to a decision based on only two choices that lead to equally undesirable outcomes. Similarly, a trilemma is a three-way decision with no acceptable outcome. The meaning of dilemma, however, has been generalized to mean any difficult decision with no positive outcome. We should avoid using dilemma to simply refer to a tough problem: teenage pregnancy is not a dilemma but a problem.

In Play: The classic trilemma is the one pointed out by the Greek philosopher Epicurus and faced by those who approach religion logically:

  1. If God is unable to prevent evil, he is not omnipotent.
  2. If God is not willing to prevent evil, he is not good.
  3. If God is willing and able to prevent evil, then why is there evil?
(This is why religion is a faith, not a logical conclusion.) Of course, we occasionally face trilemmas in our regular lives: "If I go fishing with dad, mom will get mad; if I stay home and clean my room, dad will be mad; if I don't do either, both will get mad—and I can't do both things!"

Word History: Today's Good Word was created by analogy with dilemma from Greek dilemma "double proposition". Dilemma comes from from di- "two" + lemma "premise, proposition"; tri simply means "three" in Greek. Lemma comes from root of lambanein "to take", used in the sense of "understand" as to take a gesture as an act of kindness or to mistake a gesture as an act of kindness. The root of Greek lambanein was (s)lag- with a Fickle S that does not show up in Greek. It also did not show up in Old English laeccan "grasp, seize", either. That word traveled down to us today as latch. (There is no trilemma here; we have to thank Tony Bowden of the Alpha Agora for suggesting today's often forgotten word no matter what the outcome of our decision.)

Dr. Goodword,

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