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I was surprised to discover my dictionary had this entry for dilemma:

a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones

The notion of dilemma meaning two or more flies against what I was taught about the word. The very idea of a false dilemma is specifically based on the number two.

Has my dictionary merely updated its definition to encapsulate the many people who use dilemma for more than two equal choices? Or was someone in my youth being unnecessarily pedantic?

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  • "false dilemma" does not necessarily contradict "two or more". A false dilemma involves someone pretending to create an alternative and mutually exclusive option for no reason other than to sway opinion towards one of the alleged split choices. That doesn't limit it to two. It's just easier for a manipulator to only invent one additional false choice, as opposed to multiple.
    – Flater
    Jul 8, 2021 at 14:24

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The etymology for dilemma reveals that the original meaning of the word was specific to two (di-) premises (lemmas). In fact, Etymology Online states

It should be used only of situations where someone is forced to choose between two alternatives, both unfavorable to him.

So yes, there are those who would argue that the word is only "properly" used for two unpleasant alternatives. I would speculate that your dictionary has been updated to include more modern usage, which is less specific about the number of choices to be made, perhaps because the "important" part of the meaning is that a person must make an unpleasant choice.

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  • Thanks. Of interest, the word appears to have originated in the 1520s. Now I am curious as to when the shift in meaning became noticeable. But that is a different question entirely. :)
    – MrHen
    Jul 15, 2011 at 17:10
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    This is the etymological fallacy. Modern usage determines 'how it should be properly used'. Jun 15, 2015 at 21:45
  • @EdwinAshworth, yes 'modern usage determines "how it should be properly used"', but among modern users are some who would never use the word for more than two alternatives as well as some who use is regardless of the number of alternatives. A descriptivist has to asknowledge the existence of both groups.
    – jsw29
    Jul 3, 2021 at 15:49
  • @jsw29 5 mins ago Agreed. 'So yes, it should properly only be used for two unpleasant alternatives.' doesn't. It is an example of the etymological fallacy. Jul 3, 2021 at 15:54
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Interesting - I first encountered the expression false dichotomy which I think expresses the intent more accurately despite being slightly pompous. I was then mildly surprised to find the term more popularly written and spoken as dilemma since as you point out a dilemma is not necessarily and certainly not intrinsically limited to two options.

I also prefer dichotomy since by definition it suggests a division into two non-overlapping or mutually exclusive parts, and since conflicting opinions are almost never mutually exclusive - the possibility of mediation presupposes the existence of common ground - it more clearly calls out the contrived nature of such thinking.

It might be cynical but I suppose that false dilemma has been popularly adopted simply because dilemma is close enough, and for the most part ordinary people don't care for precision as much as convenience and familiarity.

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    Except a "dilemma" is a choice between two (usually unfavorable or risky options), where a dichotomy is a division into two mutually exclusive groups. The "two horns of a dilemma" could each take you to the same place; a doctor could kill a patient with either of two risky treatments. This is not a dichotomy; that would be like saying "there are two kinds of people in this world...".
    – KeithS
    Jul 13, 2011 at 15:09
  • @KeithS Except the falsehood in question is about the division into two (or more) options rather than the outcomes of each option. It's 'false' because there may be more (or fewer) options than those presented, not because of where the options take you.
    – Ed Guiness
    Jul 13, 2011 at 16:01
  • @Ed Guiness: So... was dilemma ever restricted to only two choices? You seem to be saying that false dilemma gained traction because dilemma includes more than one option; I was more curious about whether dilemma has always been this way.
    – MrHen
    Jul 15, 2011 at 17:06
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First, the words "trilemma" and "multilemma" have been used. I know. I did it in a freshman writing class in 1982-3. They were footnoted with explanation as to their meaning relative to "dilemma". Since I was an avid Latin student circa 1970, using "dilemma" when there are multiple unpleasant choices went against the grain. The adjunct, a bitter wannabe, let these variation pass without comment.

As to "dissection", the prefix in this case is not "di-", meaning "two", but "dis-" meaning apart, as in "discombobulated".

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  • Latin dis- (variant form dī-) is thought to be from the same root as two/duo/bi- and Greek di-.
    – herisson
    Nov 20, 2018 at 0:39
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Classically, the expression was "on the horns of a dilemma".

When you had to choose between two equally unattractive options, it was described with reference to a mythical two-horned beast.

I'm sure your dictionary is going with the current usage, which allows more than two options.

If we can believe Wikipedia, the story is described here

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  • So, does the expression require exactly two options? And was this requirement also applied to the word dilemma?
    – MrHen
    Jul 13, 2011 at 4:50
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    No, I think usage allows more than two. The classical origins are becoming less important and no-one imagines a three-horned beast called a 'trilemma'
    – pavium
    Jul 13, 2011 at 4:56
  • Okay. I guess I am still curious about whether this usage is modern in the sense that the word originally meant exactly "two choices" and it was incorrect to use it for "more than two choices."
    – MrHen
    Jul 13, 2011 at 4:57
  • From that story - "Phædrus, however, because of his training in logic, was aware that every dilemma affords not two but three classic refutations"
    – Ed Guiness
    Jul 13, 2011 at 8:39
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    @Raven, common usage is determined by people unaware of the classical origins of words. Do you consider them illiterate because of this?
    – pavium
    Jul 13, 2011 at 13:53
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A dilemma is just an (unpleasant/difficult) choice, and most such choices involve only two options, but that does not mean that they can only have two options.

I suppose it was made worse with the "on the horns of" precursor, because most beasts only have two horns, but the horns don't represent the choices, they represent the unpleasantness. "On the spike of a dilemma" would work just the same.

Fred's dilemma: Should he do A, B, C, or D? No problem.

I've seen similar a similar error with "dissect", where people believed it meant "cut in two".

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    Actually the two horns do represent the two choices, at least according to Brewer. The word did originally mean "choice betwesn two things" (the di- prefix meaning "two") but you're right that in modern usage it is not restricted to the number two.
    – psmears
    Jul 13, 2011 at 13:49
  • In ancient Greek, perhaps (although a very brief perusal hasn't found any instances of it in Greek texts), but in English? Can you divide only by two? What happens if you have to dissect a frog into five parts? Can your eyballs dilate only by a factor of two? Most words with the di- prefix refer to "two' as much as decimate means skragg one in ten in English. Jul 13, 2011 at 14:01
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    Just because some words have lost the "two" sense doesn't prove that they all have. The difference is that for dilemma the dictionary (well, one reputable dictionary at least) still acknowledges the "two" association - so though I agree it's losing that sense (and indeed I never claimed otherwise), it certainly was there to start with, and it's not dead yet :)
    – psmears
    Jul 13, 2011 at 14:20
  • @psmears: Your comments are better than most of the answers I have received. Thanks.
    – MrHen
    Jul 15, 2011 at 17:09
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As an updated dictionary indicated to you, and as other sources demonstrated to me, too, the word dilemma can be used for more than two alternatives.

You can view it as if you're using it in a recurring binary sense, where you have more than two options but you are considering them all in pairs over and over again, until you've covered them all, kind of how some programming languages find the largest number in a set of numbers, if you've ever read about some algorithms for this computational process.

Moreover, another way of referring to the false dilemma fallacy is to call it the fallacy of the excluded middle. And clearly, the "middle" does not necessarily have to be only between two extremes; it can also be between two sets of extreme options.

And by way of this, treating a literal "dilemma" as something that tolerates more than just two options can help us realize a third, previously unknown option. These are not just my own philosophical thoughts about it; I refer you to this phrase from Dictionary.com's web page on the word dilemma, "But even logicians disagree on whether certain situations are dilemmas or mere syllogisms." And the Usage note section of the same source will help you see, without doubt, that this is the correct, modern understanding of the word dilemma.

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