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What is a single word, or phrase, for something that necessarily causes both harm and benefit? For example, a coal-fired power plant will harm human health through air pollution, but will bring electricity and economic development to a poor area.

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    Does it really need to be one word as otherwise I'd answer to say double-edged sword idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+double-edged+sword – k1eran Sep 6 '16 at 17:03
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    Welcome to English Language & Usage, a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. This site strives to provide well researched, intriguing questions. Take the site tour or have a look at the help center to find out more about good questions. Single word requests as yours are required to provide an example sentence about the way the word will be used. – Helmar Sep 6 '16 at 17:12

11 Answers 11

47

From thefreedictionary, it's a...

two-edged sword - something that offers both a good and bad consequence

Also double–edged sword (M-W) - both versions are equally common on both sides of the Atlantic.

See also it cuts both ways (it affects both sides of an issue equally).

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    I've always heard "double-edged sword." Is this a regional variation- perhaps BrE vs. AmE? – cobaltduck Sep 6 '16 at 19:33
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    @cobaltduck: double-edged sword has actually become the more common version in recent decades, but checking the BrE/AmE corpuses in that NGram link I can't see anything to suggest there's any kind of usage split on this one. I use both myself, but I only chose that version because I found it first and it had exactly definition I wanted. – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '16 at 19:45
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    I think it is less clichéd to simply say double-edged (drop the sword). – David Handelman Sep 6 '16 at 21:23
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    @David Handelman: Communication would get rather difficult if we all thought it was important to avoid using cliches! Seriously, I think if you're going to ditch the word sword, it would probably be better to dump that particular metaphor anyway, and go for the far more popular it cuts both ways. – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '16 at 21:43
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    @DavidHandelman, to be sure, 'two-edged' and 'double-edged' are lexically established adjectives. 'Two-edged' is slightly better for the purpose in terms of usage nuances. Both have the advantage of addressing a request for a single word. – JEL Sep 7 '16 at 3:04
36

Necessary EvilCambridge

noun Something unpleasant that must be accepted in order to achieve a particular result

"I think he regards work as a necessary evil."
"Most Americans accept taxes as a necessary evil."

29

That can sometimes be called a mixed blessing:

something that, although generally favorable or advantageous, has one or more unfavorable or disadvantageous features.

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    In a similar vein one might refer to a mitigated evil (slightly humorously; the common phrase is an unmitigated evil, something with no redeeming virtues whatsoever) – nigel222 Sep 7 '16 at 10:24
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    I usually think of mixed blessing as applying to an action or event, though, especially when speaking of it in retrospect, rather than applying to a thing. E.g. "Winning the lottery has been a mixed blessing" rather than "Nuclear power plants are a mixed blessing", esp. compared to "Nuclear power plants are a double-edged sword". – Jason C Sep 8 '16 at 14:50
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The word I think I would use would be disjunctive.

It means disjoined, or lacking connection/consistency. So it doesn't immediately speak of both benefit and harm, but if one words the rest of what one is saying appropriately it gives the desired meaning.

For example:

Nuclear power has disjunctive effects, both beneficial and harmful.

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    Hm, disjunctive doesn't imply good and bad, though. You could also say "Nuclear power has various effects, both beneficial and harmful" or "Nuclear power has disjunctive yet beneficial effects". Saying "Nuclear power has disjunctive effects" leaves the quality of the effects unclear. Disjunctive just says that effects may be unrelated to or not overlapping with each other, but doesn't carry any information about whether the effects are good or bad. – Jason C Sep 8 '16 at 14:53
  • @JasonC The problem is that there isn't a word you can use, except perhaps contrary effects. Often people will say something like that would provide mixed benefits. – WS2 Sep 8 '16 at 15:53
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I found a relevant list of words and phrases, partial list is:

  • mixed - partly good and partly bad
  • patchy - if someone’s performance or work is patchy, it is good sometimes but not always
  • two-edged - capable of being understood in two different ways or of having both good and bad effects
  • spotty - only good, successful, or effective on some occasions or in some situations
  • mixed blessing - something that has both advantages and disadvantages
  • six of one, (and) half a dozen of the other - used for saying that two things are equally good or bad
  • a double-edged/two-edged sword - a situation with as many bad qualities or effects as good ones
  • work both ways - if something such as a particular situation or type of behavior works both ways, it has equal advantages and disadvantages for everyone it involves
  • cut both ways - if something cuts both ways, it has both good and bad aspects

(Source: Macmillan Dictionary)

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Maybe no pain no gain. That something beneficial (gain) is unachievable or unreachable without dealing with some harm (pain) as a side dish.

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Paradox - something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible

: someone who does two things that seem to be opposite to each other or who has qualities that are opposite

: a statement that seems to say two opposite things but that may be true

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    Please always mention your source and also provide a link to it. For example, see this answer. – NVZ Sep 7 '16 at 16:27
  • A medicine may cure a disease but cause upset stomach, but that isn't a paradox, it's just two different effects, no self-contradiction or impossibility implied. – barbecue Sep 8 '16 at 15:37
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I think you mean:

Egregious

(Source)

Meaning 1: Outstandingly Bad (Can take as Harm contextually)

Meaning 2: Remarkably Good (Can take as Benefit contextually)

Example: A coal-fired power plant is egregious in a way that one side when it is uplifting the economy of the area, other side it is downgrading the environment.

  • -1 Firstly the "Remarkably Good" sense is archaic, and secondly the word egregious is / was never used with both senses simultaneously. – FumbleFingers Sep 8 '16 at 17:26
  • I referred this: english.stackexchange.com/q/71551/186126 – Karan Desai Sep 9 '16 at 5:04
  • Even the OP in that earlier question says Some references state that "remarkably good" is archaic, and most if not all the answers explicitly acknowledge this. OP's old screenshot of a Google definition doesn't mention it, but if you just search for egregious today you'll see that second definition is explicitly marked "archaic". – FumbleFingers Sep 9 '16 at 13:12
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Already having supplied an answer to this question, it has just occurred to me that the metaphor you may be seeking is * a curate's egg*.

As the Oxford Dictionary Online explains it is British, meaning 'a thing that is partly good and partly bad': this book is a bit of a curate's egg.

ORIGIN early 20th century: from a cartoon in Punch (1895) depicting a meek curate who, given a stale egg at the bishop's table, assures his host that 'parts of it are excellent'.

  • I know that some people, nowadays, use a curate's egg to describe something that is both good and bad. However, this is really a misuse of the original idiom, so I don't think we should encourage it's use in the case. Quoting en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curate%27s_egg In its original context, the term refers to something that is obviously and essentially bad, but is euphemistically described as nonetheless having good features credited with undue redeeming power – k1eran Oct 25 '16 at 17:57
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Slightly tongue-in-cheek alternative:

  • Vice

... if the context is "a bad or unhealthy habit (such as an addiction to smoking)" - Wikipedia.

Smokers are aware of the harm but continue the habit due to their own perception of the benefit.

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The closest to a single word we have for the concept would be "catch-22"

From dictionary.com:

  1. a frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.
  2. any illogical or paradoxical problem or situation; dilemma.
  3. a condition, regulation, etc., preventing the resolution of a problem or situation; catch.

It's derived from the novel of the same name.

In your example. "Civic engineers faced a catch-22 when it came to the coal plant. It would allow them to deliver energy cheaply to the area, but at the cost of added pollution"

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    A catch-22 is an impossible dilemma, usually of an absurd nature. Whereas a double-edge sword simply means that there are good and bad outcomes to be reckoned with. I don't think the engineers in the example are in a catch-22. They simply have to be aware of trade-offs. – see sharper Sep 8 '16 at 4:15

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