What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesEvery four years, Americans seem to face the same inevitable dilemma: in a two-party system, voters have to choose between a Democratic candidate and a Republican candidate for President. In 2016, it was Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump; in 2020, it was Joseph Biden vs Donald Trump. See the pattern emerging here? Two bad choices. The problem is magnified exponentially in a highly polarized political environment that rises to cult-like fanaticism that paints one candidate as a hero and the other as a demon — and vice versa. Imagine a collective eye-roll here. Since neither candidate is ideal, what is the voter supposed to do? Although your existential voting crisis is beyond the scope of this post, let us address the other question that comes up surrounding this crisis: what is the word when you are faced with two bad choices?

Other than the most obvious cynical response (“OMG — we are so hopelessly fucked!”),  there are actually several phrases that describe this very specific dilemma. Regardless of your political affiliation, any of these will work:

Cornelian dilemma (also spelled Cornellian)
A dilemma where a person must choose between two courses of action that either of which will have a harmful effect on themselves or others. The phrase is named after Pierre Corneille, a French dramatist. In his play, Le Cid (1636), Rodrigue, the protagonist, must choose between seeking revenge and losing his beloved or forgo revenge and losing his honor.

Between Scylla and Charybdis
A dilemma where a person must choose between two evils. The phrase is derived from Greek mythology. In Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus had to sail through at the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland, each occupied by mythical sea monsters. Charybdis, was a dangerous whirlpool, lived off the coast of Sicily, while Scylla, a six-headed sea monster, lived on the Italian side of the strait. Odysseus had to choose between two monsters, ultimately deciding to pass by Scylla, sacrificing a few sailors, as opposed to passing by Charybdis, and losing his entire ship and crew. Incidentally, the words are pronounced “silla” (rhymes with villa) and “KA rib dis.”

Between the devil and the deep blue sea
A dilemma where a person must choose between two undesirable situations or outcomes. The term, of nautical origin, refers to a person facing death either burning in hell, the home of the devil, or drowning at the bottom of the sea. The phrase first appears in Robert Monro’s His Expedition with the Worthy Scots Regiment Called Mac-Keyes (1637).

Between a rock and a hard place
A dilemma where a person must choose between two very unpleasant choices. The earliest printed use of the phrase occurs in Dialect Notes V (1921), a publication of the American Dialect Society: “To be between a rock and a hard place… to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona in recent panics.” The recent panics refer to the choice that copper mineworkers in Bisbee Arizona, who were trying to unionize for better conditions, had to choose between low pay and harsh work at the mines or unemployment and poverty.

The lesser of two evils
A dilemma that presents a choice between two unfavorable, harmful or bad options. Although the phrase originated as a proverb among the ancient Greeks, it was popularized by Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem Troilus and Criseyde (Troilus and Cressida) written in Middle English in the mid 1830s.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t
A dilemma where it is impossible to do the right thing, because either option will result in undesirable outcomes. The original phrase, “You’ll be damned if you do — and damned if you don’t” appeared in American evangelist Lorenzo Dow’s Reflections on the Love of God published in 1836. Dow was criticizing preachers who “make the Bible clash and contradict itself.”

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Read related posts: Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard
To Cut the Gordian Knot

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For further reading: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place.html

3 thoughts on “What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?

  1. In the paragraph under “Cornelian Dilemma” above, “forego” should be “forgo.”

    PS I just (15 minutes ago or so) came across this place while trying to determine whether MLK (or Alfred E. Neuman or Andres Serrano or some adolescent dork on reddit) actually said/wrote this:
    “Silence isn’t always golden. Sometimes it’s just plain yellow.”
    Have not found the answer yet because I’m clicking around this site like at manic castanet–I love it here! So much edifying/amusing/interesting content, and so beautifully presented. THANK YOU!

    • Hi Jessie: Thank for catching that typo. Moreover, thank you for your kind note about Atkins Bookshelf. In my book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, I discuss the inspiration for Atkins Bookshelf: to create a labyrinth of ideas that are connected on some level. It is a journey of discovery where one idea leads to another, like a visitor to a library that wanders from one bookshelf to another, opening one book, that leads to another — lost in time. Cheers. Alex

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