The true meaning of a dilemma

I have had the word dilemma on my mind for the past week. The word comes up fairly often in the copy I edit and usually it is used to mean a problem or a difficult choice. In the strictest sense, a dilemma is a choice between two equally bad alternatives. It is being between a rock and a hard place. I almost always change the word — to problem or difficult choice.

Here is an example of a dilemma. The Great Recession has wrecked state government budgets, and the states don’t have enough money. Legislatures must choose between cutting money for essential services such as education or road building and raising taxes on residents and businesses that are still reeling from the bad times. The situation is not just a problem — it’s a choice between two undesirable alternatives.

A related term that appears seldom these days is Hobson’s choice. A Hobson’s choice is a take it or leave it choice. A mother tells her child, “You can eat the dinner I am serving tonight or you can go to your room without dinner.” Hobson’s choice comes from a 16th century English stable owner who gave customers only the choice of the horse in the closest stall or none at all. Writers rarely use the term because it is not well understood — including by writers.

Sometimes, what looks like a dilemma (two bad choices) may seem to the person facing it to be a Hobson’s choice (take it or leave it). You have been given two choices, both bad, it seems, but in fact one alternative is unfeasible so you really have a Hobson’s choice — you have to leave it.