On the Horns of a Dilemma

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Meaning of Idiom 'On the Horns of a Dilemma'

To be on the horns of a dilemma means having to choose between two equally undesirable options, courses of action, etc. 2,1


"The businessman found himself on the horns of a dilemma. If he sold his business, he would have enough money to retire comfortably. But, if he kept running his business, he would make millions more in the long run."

"Many students, when final exams are coming, are on the horns of a dilemma. If they study all night, the lack of sleep may hamper their thinking during the exam, but if they go to sleep early, they may not be prepared."


In Medieval rhetoric, a "dilemma" was a "double lemma."

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 seen as being similar to a horned animal, such as 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." 2

Although the idea itself was expressed during Roman times, as an idiom, the phrase was first seen in print around 1600. 1

1. Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
2. Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth M. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms. Ware: Wordsworth, 1995.

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