DILEMMA: “a situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive” — The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
“In Gwinnett County, the drug dealers are able to hide in plain sight,” county District Attorney Danny Porter said. “…The presence of the organizations is a dilemma enough that we have to develop new tactics.” (Mexican drug cartels thrive in suburban Atlanta, CNN.com, March 19, 2009)
Ah yes. Three years of law school wasn’t enough to eradicate the lexical misinformation which so suffocates our nation. Not that D.A. Porter, Esq., is to blame. Almost all dictionaries (except for the New Oxford American, my favorite) allow for what is now the main definition of dilemma: “any difficult situation,” although some, like NOAD and ADH4, include usage notes decrying this meaning. 58% of ADH4‘s usage panel rejected the watered down definition, although, surprisingly, 64% said dilemma was acceptable when referring to a choice between three or more bad choices.
Surprisingly, because dilemma comes from the Greek for “two propositions” (mathematicians will recognize the stand-alone lemma). The word has been with us since the 16th century and has its origins in formal logic. Dilemmas were often posed as intellectual exercises, since in real life, it is rare that two alternatives are equal in their badness.
Nevertheless, a Google search reveals another surprise. Despite casual misuse of the word, most news outlets, bloggers and even rap artist Nelly seem to be within striking distance of the traditional definition of dilemma. Which puts me in a difficult spot — I either criticize them and be in the wrong, or else congratulate them and momentarily surrender my righteous condescension. A true dilemma indeed.
— Otto E. Mezzo
Wikipedia’s explanation of dilemma
A more detailed exposition of what makes a dilemma, with sample dilemmas you will recognize
Lyrics to Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma”
P.S. In case you were interested, a choice between three equally diabolical alternatives is called a trilemma. Four, a tetralemma, and so on.