1. A situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or unsatisfactory.
2. Usage Problem A problem that seems to defy a satisfactory solution.
3. Logic An argument that presents two alternatives, each of which has the same consequence.
[Late Latin, from Greek dilēmma, ambiguous proposition : di-, two; see DI-1 + lēmma, proposition; see LEMMA1.]
dil′em·matic (dĭl′ə-mătĭk) adj.
Usage Note: In its traditional use, dilemma refers to a situation in which a choice must be made between alternative courses of action or argument. The word is also used more loosely to mean "problem" or "predicament" without implying that a choice must be made. This usage has been criticized by language critics, and the Usage Panel still supports this view, but this support has been eroding over time. In our 1999 survey, 58 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the sentence Historically, race has been the great dilemma of democracy. This is a significant decrease from the 74 percent that rejected a similar sentence in 1988. · It is sometimes claimed that because the di- in dilemma comes from a Greek prefix meaning "two," the word should be used only when exactly two choices are involved. In 2005, some 58 percent of the Panel reported that they followed this restriction in their own writing. The remaining 42 percent said that the word could acceptably be used for more than two choices. It seems unlikely that writers will be taken to task for ignoring the two-choice limit.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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