On the horns of a dilemma: origin of idioms

Black/brown ram
On the horns of a dilemma

Life right now might be bland. Not much to do. And no people to see. Life during lockdown is colourless and lacks flavour. You might say it’s vanilla.

‘Vanilla” is Merriam Webster’s word of the day. Why does ‘vanilla’ get the blame for dull, lack-lustre boring and bleak, I have to add?

In demand

A popular flavour during its early flowering, it was used for ice-creams, perfumes, coffee, baking, drinks, and lotions of every kind. It became so common as the basic flavour or fragrance of such a wide range of products that ‘vanilla’ came to mean dull, plain, unexciting – vanilla.

Poor outcomes

When you’re presented with a situation that calls on your most astute decision-making powers, life is anything but vanilla. In fact, you might find yourself on the ‘horns of a dilemma’ – a vibrant dramatic idiom that means having to face a decision where both outcomes are unpleasant.

The history of the origin varies and I was able to find a few interesting bits.

Breakdown the word

If you look at the word ‘dilemma’ by itself think lemma times two (di)

‘“In Medieval rhetoric, a “dilemma” was a “double lemma.”’ (idiomsonline)

According to www.idiomsonline, ‘A lemma was a premise or preposition and a dilemma was an argument which forced an opponent to choose between two equally undesirable premises, both damaging to the opponent’s argument or position.’


This was in many illustrations, depicted as a horned animal, often a bull. ‘The opponent would be impaled on one of the two horns no matter what choice he made. Thus, such an argument also came to be called argumentum cornutum or “horned argument.”’

It’s widely held that the concept came to light during the Roman era but was first seen in print around 1600.

A reader’s post on worldwidewords.org explains: ‘The original dilemma in rhetoric was a device by which you presented your opponent with two alternatives; it didn’t matter which one he chose to respond to — either way he lost the argument. When you did this to your opponent you were said to present two horns to him, as of a bull, on either of which he might be impaled.


‘As the scholar Nicholas Udall said in a translation of a work by Erasmus in 1548, it didn’t matter to which of the two points a person made a direct answer, either way he would run on to the sharp point of the horn.’

In other words, modern lingo would describe it as a ‘lose- lose situation’ – pretty much like lockdown. Forced to spend money to survive when revenue has ground to a halt.


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Iza Grek

Iza is an award-winning journalist. She has worked in advertising and communications for more than 20 years. A Word or 2 has been in operation since October 2014 and continues to thrive, serving customers writing and editing services across the board from blogs to speeches and e-books.