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I'm searching for a proverb or expression that describes a situation which has two choices or two ways out (that is, somewhat of a forced choice) where both lead to some kind of trouble (but not the same trouble).

As an example: Let's say that you can chose to go either left or right. If you go left, you will have to fight your way through an army of trolls. If you go right, you will have to go through a desert without any food or water for one week.

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It's off-topic, but I can't refrain...: in Italian it is: "Dalla padella alla brace" :-) –  user12067 Aug 17 '11 at 15:15
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"If I go there will be trouble, an' if I stay it will be double" - The Clash –  Bob Roberts Aug 17 '11 at 15:35
    
@Marco What does it literally mean? In swedish, it is called to "sitta i en rävsax" which translates to "sitting in a fox trap". I think it's one of those traps which snaps shut and therefore you encounter troubles from both sides at the same time. –  Speldosa Aug 17 '11 at 16:01
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Dilemna? Paradox? –  Joe the Person Aug 17 '11 at 21:22
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I thought of double edged sword besides a few that are already here. –  hippietrail Aug 19 '11 at 9:54

12 Answers 12

up vote 52 down vote accepted

The most common English phrase for this is between a rock and a hard place. It means:

In difficulty, faced with a choice between two unsatisfactory options.

Specifically, to say you are caught between a rock and a hard place means that you are in a dilemma. The exact dilemma seems to be exactly what you're describing--Morton's fork, which is:

a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives (in other words, a dilemma), or two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion. It is analogous to the expressions "between the devil and the deep blue sea," "between a rock and a hard place," or, as those in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world say, "Between a cross and a sword." This is the opposite of the Buridan's Ass.

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Let's not forget a good old one: Damned if you do; damned if you don't. –  Phoenix Aug 17 '11 at 12:54
    
NB The Spanish set phrase is actually "between a sword and a wall" (literally "the" rather than "a"). –  Peter Taylor Aug 20 '11 at 9:55
    
Between the horns of a dilemma. –  GEdgar Aug 20 '11 at 15:12
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@simchona +1 You deserve being a Guru :) –  Daniel Aug 26 '11 at 2:10

There are a number of these in English.

Between a rock and a hard place.

Between Scylla and Charybdis.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea.

As well as the closely related expression:

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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"Between a rock and a hard place." is a nice one, but "Out of the frying pan and into the fire." actually means you went from a bad situation to a worse one. –  Alenanno Aug 17 '11 at 10:20
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I was proud I understood the expression "between Scylla and Charybdis" when I first heard it. –  jhocking Aug 17 '11 at 14:31
    
@jhocking Can you explain it? :) –  Louis Rhys Aug 18 '11 at 1:51
    
They are a couple of sea monsters that guarded a waterway in ancient Greek myth. –  jhocking Aug 18 '11 at 2:11
    
@LouisRhys: In Greek mythology, Scylla was a sea monster who lived underneath a dangerous rock at one side of the Strait of Messina, opposite the whirlpool Charybdis.She threatened passing ships and in the Odyssey ate six of Odysseus' companions. Charybdis was once a nymph-daughter of Poseidon and Gaia who flooded lands for her father's underwater kingdom until Zeus turned her into a monster and have her suck in and out water three times an day. She lived in a cave at one side of the Strait of Messina, opposite the monster Scylla, the two of them forming a dangerous threat to passing ships. –  rhetorician Aug 9 '13 at 14:45

Although you asked for a proverb or expression (which simchona has provided), there's also a single word for this: a dilemma is a choice between equally unappealing options. From the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. In Rhetoric. A form of argument involving an adversary in the choice of two (or, loosely, more) alternatives, either of which is (or appears) equally unfavourable to him. (The alternatives are commonly spoken of as the ‘horns’ of the dilemma.) Hence in Logic, a hypothetical syllogism having a conjunctive or ‘conditional’ major premiss and a disjunctive minor (or, one premiss conjunctive and the other disjunctive).

2. Hence, in popular use: A choice between two (or, loosely, several) alternatives, which are or appear equally unfavourable; a position of doubt or perplexity, a ‘fix’.

One of the example sentences is:

1888 J. Bryce Amer. Commonw. II. liii. 332 They were‥in the dilemma of either violating the Constitution or losing a golden opportunity.

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Though, at least in popular use, dilemma can be used when choosing between two desirable options as well, as not choosing one of the desirable options could be considered unfavorable. –  Adam Robinson Aug 17 '11 at 12:38
    
@Adam: A dilemma (two-horn) is usually used to describe the choice itself, not the quality of the options. Choosing one is committing to that path and forsaking the other, but both may be equally bad or one may be bad while the other is good. It is "a situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive.". –  Robusto Aug 17 '11 at 14:00
    
@Robusto: That's my point; the answer states that the options are unappealing. –  Adam Robinson Aug 17 '11 at 14:23
    
It's true that many people use dilemma for a choice in which one or more of the options is not unappealing. However, some of us prefer to restrict dilemma to its original meanings (as described in the definitions I posted). One aspect of those meanings is that both options are unappealing; if the word loses that aspect (and I think you're saying that it already has), then I think we've lost a useful word. –  Nicholas Aug 17 '11 at 23:34
    
In the Greek language, a problem with one aspect is "problemma", a problem with two aspects is "dilemma", and a problem with three or more aspects is "polilemma". In psychology, a choice between two pleasant things is an approach-approach conflict. –  Theresa Oct 1 at 2:04

Pick your poison seems applicable.

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That's more of a drinking expression though. –  Matt Эллен Aug 18 '11 at 9:13

@Phoenix beat me to it:

You're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

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That's explicitly about choosing between action and inaction, though, whereas the OP wants an expression that could potentially include two equally unpleasant actions. –  user867 Jul 19 '13 at 6:25

Sophie's choice (after the book and movie of the same name) is another option, though it tends to imply that the consequences of either choice are dire, rather than simply unpleasant or undesirable.

The cultural impact of the book gave rise to the expression "making a 'Sophie's Choice'", which describes being forced to choose between two very dear possessions; keeping one and losing the other forever. It is a reference to either of the two central choices Sophie made in the book:

Spoilers follow on the Wikipedia pages.

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It was a book before it was a movie. –  Daniel Roseman Aug 17 '11 at 12:55
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@Daniel: Thanks! Edited. –  Adam Robinson Aug 17 '11 at 13:48

If you want to use a short phrase that says a little more than just "dilemma", you can go for the Cornelian dilemma.

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This question reminded me of this little historical gem:

the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians, between these two means of death we are either killed or drowned.

which, according to Wikipedia, comes from a text called "The Groans of the Britons".

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You may have to choose either "Lesser of two evils" or "Worse of two evils," or just the evils

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Devils? I know The lesser of two evils. Unless you mean the short film –  teylyn Jul 19 '13 at 9:18
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teylyn. Oop. My mistake. It should be 'lesser of two evils.' I was let to hit d before evils by the devil. –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 9 '13 at 11:59
    
Down in the cotton fields of Carolina, there were a couple of boll weevils. One moved to the big city, got a degree, and had a successful career. His brother stayed on the farm, never amounting to much; he came to be known as the ... lesser of two weevils. –  hunter2 Sep 5 '13 at 7:22

A few broadly related proverbs (see, e.g., thesaurus.com):

  • In straits
  • Between the hammer and the anvil (Hebrew proverb)
  • Between two fires
  • Catch 22
  • Hobson's choice
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I'm not sure that Catch-22 or Hobson's choice apply here. A catch-22 means that each option has the other as a prerequisite, and Hobson's choice is a "false choice", where only one option is really given (the other being to do nothing, rather than having a legitimate second option). –  Adam Robinson Aug 17 '11 at 12:36
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Indeed, they are not the same but are similar in the sense that there is no real good alternative –  Itamar Aug 17 '11 at 13:12
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"Between the hammer and the anvil" has nothing to do with choice. It merely means that you are about to be squashed. –  mickeyf Aug 17 '11 at 14:06
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I disagree. Literally, "Between the hammer and the anvil" and "between a rock and a hard place" represent similar situations. –  Itamar Aug 18 '11 at 7:07

A false dilemma.

A dilemma with two options that are both wrong. There is always a third, more reliable option. Sometimes the choices we have are just current states of a situation, and we lack knowledge to see there is really no choice.

Quoting Wikipedia:

A false dilemma (also called false dichotomy, black-and/or-white thinking, the either-or fallacy, the fallacy of false choice, the fallacy of exhaustive hypotheses, the fallacy of the false alternative or the fallacy of the excluded middle) is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. The opposite of this fallacy is argument to moderation.

The options may be a position that is between two extremes (such as when there are shades of grey) or may be completely different alternatives. Phrasing that implies 2 options (dilemma, dichotomy, black and white) may be substituted with other number-based nouns, such as a "false trilemma" if something is reduced to only 3 options, instead of 2.

False dilemma can arise intentionally, when fallacy is used in an attempt to force a choice (such as, in some contexts, the assertion that "if you are not with us, you are against us"). But the fallacy can also arise simply by accidental omission of additional options rather than by deliberate deception.

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It's called a Morton's Fork:

A situation involving having to choose between two equally undesirable outcomes.

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It's the correct answer and it's a pity you didn't provide a source to back it up. However, it was also given by Simchona in her accepted answer english.stackexchange.com/a/38244/44619 –  Mari-Lou A Nov 7 '13 at 8:32

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