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Horns of a dilemma

Q From Anne Fairbrother in the USA: A friend and I were discussing the phrase on the horns of a dilemma, and pondering its origin. He thought it came from what is made explicit in the definition — that there are two choices, like two horns. But I wonder if it could be derived from the Devil or the god Pan?

A Nothing to do with the Devil, or indeed cuckold’s horns, and little to do with choice either, as it turns out. The original dilemma in rhetoric was a device by which you presented your opponent with two alternatives; it didn’t matter which one he chose to respond to — either way he lost the argument. When you did this to your opponent you were said to present two horns to him, as of a bull, on either of which he might be impaled. As the scholar Nicholas Udall said in a translation of a work by Erasmus in 1548, it didn’t matter to which of the two points a person made a direct answer, either way he would run on to the sharp point of the horn.

A famous example is that of John Morton, Lord Chancellor to Henry VII, a permanently hard-up monarch. Morton (who was also Archbishop of Canterbury at the time) was a brilliant extractor of forced loans — or benevolences, as they were euphemistically called — through what is known as Morton’s Fork. His ploy was to go to prominent people and ask them for money. If they were big spenders, then they must be rich, and could afford to give money to the King; if they spent little, then they must have a lot of money stashed away, and could well afford to give some to the king. That’s a dilemma with really sharp horns: either way the unwilling donor was forced to cough up.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Jun. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 10 June 2000.