When you have two options to chose between and either would not benefit you, so whichever you chose will be bad.

Like the word 'destined' with a more permanent bad destination.

Example:
It would make no difference to choose X over Y, they would both kill me. It was a (word)

  • 4
    It was hopeless. – jxh Jul 12 at 19:14
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    "a losing proposition", or "not a proposition" – Cascabel Jul 12 at 20:09
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    Minor nit-pick: the use of "game" here isn't really a metaphor. A game is a conceptual framework for analyzing a scenario by identifying the possible actions of the involved parties (the "rules") and what the outcomes of these actions would be ("winning/losing"). Calling a situation a "losing game" is quite literal. – EldritchWarlord Jul 13 at 14:30
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    @Lawrence: "Hobson's choice" usually denotes more of a "take it or leave it" situation, rather than requiring a choice between two bad options. – Michael Seifert Jul 13 at 17:20
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    Less polite phrase : "I'm fucked either way". – Anthony Jul 14 at 7:08

13 Answers 13

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Though not exactly a single word, consider the expression lose-lose situation (also known as no-win situation):

a situation in which a favorable outcome is impossible; you are bound to lose whatever you do

Your example:

It makes no difference to choose X over Y. They both will kill me. It's a lose-lose situation.

  • 2
    Although it's less formal, you can also just use lose-lose on its own: "They both will kill me. It's lose-lose." – GentlePurpleRain Jul 13 at 3:30
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    @GentlePurpleRain That's a very good point. The word lose-lose on its own is an adjective: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/lose-lose – Mike R Jul 13 at 3:32
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    I thought lose-lose is more when neither side has anything to win. Like a stalemate only both sides lose. Is that not right? – Anthony Jul 14 at 7:07
  • @Anthony Yes, that's also one possible meaning. Please, don't forget that expressions that are informal in nature usually are very difficult to define precisely. – Mike R Jul 14 at 18:14

A whole phrase Between a rock and a hard place

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

phrase finder

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    I hardly think that counts as "less metaphorical"! – Toby Speight Jul 13 at 12:24

Consider checkmate:

  1. (figuratively, by extension) Any losing situation with no escape; utter defeat.

Wiktionary

It is still metaphorical, but a sentence about choices tend to go well with game metaphors.

Either choice would kill me. It was checkmate.

You don't specify, but if the scenario results from contradictory or paradoxical outcomes from either choice, you could call that a catch-22.

Derived from a 1960s novel of the same name, the canonical example of catch-22 is a scenario where a pilot that wants to fly more bombing missions in a war must be insane, and therefore should not be allowed to fly, but a pilot who says he is insane and should be excused demonstrates that he is rational, and therefore must fly the bombing mission.

I also like this quote from Nanny McPhee, which could be another example: When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It's rather sad, really, but there it is.

  • 1
    While an exciting application, catch-22 should be limited to when either losing choice reinforces the other, thus causing a potential loop. If I have a choice between full surrender and total annihilation, this isn't necessarily a catch 22. A catch 22, like its namesake, requires a frustrating element of irony that makes selecting either choice futile because it brings about the other. – Anthony Jul 14 at 7:13

I think a chess term that's better than checkmate is zugzwang (which sort of hit the "mainstream" when it was used on an episode of Criminal Minds):

[Oxford]

A situation in which the obligation to make a move in one's turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage.

‘black is in zugzwang’
‘After a while one would realise that this position looks like a mutual zugzwang’

The difference between this and checkmate is that the game isn't actually over; it's simply that you are forced into making a move that is bad for you—regardless of what that move is. (With checkmate, you can't actually move at all . . .)

  • 1
    This literally translates to forced move, which is not quite the same as a no-win scenario. Either choice of words is going with a figurative meaning rather than its literal one. Upvoted just the same. – jxh Jul 12 at 21:01
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    I don't think zugzwang really fits. The key feature of zugzwang is that one is in no immediate danger--but it's your turn to move. If you could "pass", all would be well. But the rules require that you make a move, and all of your legal moves lead to your demise. In other words, the key feature of zugzwang is not merely that there are no good choices, but that you are required to be the author of your own destruction by making a choice. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jul 12 at 21:43
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    (Native AmE speaker) I've never heard of this word – No don't shown my real name Jul 13 at 0:33
  • I don't think most Americans have--it's very specific to chess, although I have heard it used metaphorically on occasion. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jul 13 at 20:06

...a losing proposition

-Your Dictionary

or

...not a proposition

Unlikely to succeed; not a viable option.,

-Oxford Living Dictionary

Not a single word; I am not sure if there is a good one. But you could say,

"It would make no difference to choose X over Y, they would both kill me. It was a losing proposition/ not a proposition."

  • 1
    Along similar lines, a lost cause. – wchargin Jul 13 at 1:40

You say you want a “less metaphorical” term, so how about it was death either way

  • All of the other answers about "no-win" or "lose-lose" still follow the game metaphor. This straightforward answer is a great non-metaphorical option. – mattdm Jul 15 at 14:16

Colloquially, damned if you do, damned if you don't could work depending on context.

Predicament, quandary or dilemma. Though none of these indicate a complete no win situation.

  • I think dilemma's definition fits the OP's question very well, and it's a single word. You could improve this answer by including definitions and sources. – hatchet Jul 13 at 17:47

If you want to avoid 'game over' because that phrase dates the dialog as being within the last 30 years or so, how about this:

It was curtains.

or to avoid a metaphor altogether while still conveying the starkness of the choices on offer, how about:

It was futile.

It was a fait accompli.

From Google:

fait ac·com·pli

/ˌfed əkämˈplē,ˌfād əkämˈplē/

noun

a thing that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept.

"the results were presented to shareholders as a fait accompli"

There are many expressions that could fill in that blank. One of the most literal is, no-win scenario.

If looking for a single word or phrase, death sentence seems like a just fit here.

It would make no difference to choose X over Y, they would both kill me. Either way, it was a death sentence.

Wiktionary defines death sentence as

(figuratively) Anything that spells death.

Eg: Having the Huntington's gene is a death sentence.

protected by tchrist Jul 13 at 14:04

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