This has cropped up several times in the past couple of months, and I've been struggling to find a fitting word to describe this phenomenon. I'll describe it:

You have two choices(no, it's not Hobson's choice). Both of them are desirable, yet both of them each have a tiny part which is most undesirable, such as a tough condition, or a demanding clause. You have difficulty deciding which one to pick.

Whenever something like that comes up, I think of the expression "Can't burn a candle at both ends", but I'm not looking for that.

I'm looking for an expression that describes a difficult choice. Any suggestions?

EDIT: It's idiomatic. I'm quite sure it is. It's an expression of some sort. And no, it isn't "dilemma"

  • What happens if there is no such word for your concept?
    – Mitch
    Mar 6, 2012 at 14:33
  • @Mitch, true, and that is what I fear.
    – Bidella
    Mar 6, 2012 at 23:57
  • I guess I'm asking if you just want a term badly or if you think you've heard it before and just want to be reminded.
    – Mitch
    Mar 7, 2012 at 0:56
  • 1
    I think you've probably gone beyond any standard idiomatic expressions by specifying two different largely unrelated constraints. Firstly, both of them "are desirable", presumably with the implication that you can only pick one. Secondly, both "have a tiny part which is most undesirable". Ignore the second, and you want to have your cake and eat it. Ignore the first, and you've got pros and cons Mar 7, 2012 at 1:20
  • @FumbleFingers! That's it! That's the idiom I've been trying to describe. Make it into answer!
    – Bidella
    Mar 7, 2012 at 2:36

8 Answers 8


Perhaps you are facing the same problem as a Buridan's ass - an ass caught between two similarly inviting choices.

Morton's fork is similar, but with both choices undesirable.

  • The Paradox of Buridan's Ass expresses being unable to choose between two equally valuable outcomes, and thus captures what the OP is looking for.
    – Gnawme
    Mar 6, 2012 at 6:38
  • @Gnawme, in the Buridan's ass paradox, the alternatives do not include the "tiny part which is most undesirable" element called for in question. (The same is true of toss-up and six of one, half a dozen of the other.) Mar 7, 2012 at 2:21
  • @jwpat7 Yeah, if you factor in that little requirement, I'm not sure that there's anything idiomatic that fits.
    – Gnawme
    Mar 7, 2012 at 5:31

You are "between a rock and a hard place".


You might be caught between the Scylla and Charybdis:

Being between Scylla and Charybdis is an idiom deriving from Greek mythology. Several other idioms, such as "on the horns of a dilemma", "between the devil and the deep blue sea", and "between a rock and a hard place" express the same meaning of "having to choose between two evils".


I guess the word/phrase you are looking for is "toss-up", as quoted from http://www.learn-english-today.com:

When there are two options or possibilities to chose from, and both are equally good, the choice between the two is referred to as a toss-up (like tossing a coin). "Both boxers are in excellent condition. It's a toss-up which of them will win the match."


You might consider 'It's six of one, half a dozen the other.'

  • Although this is more generally used for two choices where there is nothig between them, it does work well here. It is also well known, and probably better understood than Shyams suggestions, good as they are. Mar 6, 2012 at 9:40

I think OP has really gone beyond any standard idiomatic expressions by specifying two different largely unrelated constraints.

  • both choices "are desirable", but there's the implication that you can only pick one.

The standard expression there is you want to have your cake and eat it. Often poorly understood, this means you can't continue to own your cake if you eat it, because then it's "gone".

  • Both choices "have a tiny part which is most undesirable".

Here, each choice has pros and cons. The fact that the "pros" and the "cons" may be very unequal is irrelevant to the use of this expression.


Dilemma, "a circumstance in which a choice must be made between two or more alternatives that seem equally undesirable" is frequently used for situations somewhat like you describe. (Note, wiktionary also says "the sense of a difficult circumstance or problem is considered non-standard" by some.) Etymonline says dilemma arose in the 1520's,

from L.L. dilemma, from Gk. dilemma "double proposition," a technical term in rhetoric, from di- "two" + lemma "premise, anything received or taken," from root of lambanein "to take" (see analemma). It should be used only of situations where someone is forced to choose between two alternatives, both unfavorable to him

which supports the notion that the choices are unfavorable. Unfortunately, this word does not have the connotation of the choices being mostly favorable and partly (but seriously) unfavorable, which your question calls for. Perhaps you could use delicious dilemma or tasty dilemma.

  • My situation is slightly different. A "dilemma" is where both choices are equally undesirable. Mine is where both choices are equally hogged with undesirable parts only, but are mostly desirable
    – Bidella
    Mar 6, 2012 at 5:57
  • @Bidella, but each choice is equally undesirable. Choosing either one means accepting the undesirable condition you mentioned, and also forgoing the other option (obviously undesirable).
    – Sam
    Mar 7, 2012 at 2:30

Almost made for it is "on the horns of a dilemma." The archetype of this phrase is from the Old Testament of the Christian faith. Specifically, the story of Joab in First Kings, Chapter 2, verses 1-46. I won't give the story away. But Joab was faced with a terrible choice. And to try to delay it, he fled into the temple and grabbed hold of the horns of the altar (pictured). And there he refused to leave.

enter image description here

By extension, somebody who has a difficult decision and clings to the decision trying to delay it, is "on the horns."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.