A word for "an unsolvable problem"/"lose-lose situation"?

Just wanted to add, in case anyone’s interested:

The “two horns of a bull” comes from classical battle tactics. A common tactic for an advancing army was to form yourself in the shape of the head of a bull. The main army would be in the middle and there would be two “horns” either side closing in. The idea was to entrap the enemy in the middle.

The enemy couldn’t approach the “head” of the bull because that was where the main bulk of the army would be. They had to assume that one of the “horns” would be weaker than the other one and so attack that one. This was the only way to defeat the bull formation.

But which horn do you attack…?

Zugswang (from chess).

Somewhat along these lines is what is called a Hobson’s choice.

Thomas Hobson was supposed to be the origin of this idea. He kept a livery stable in England and had each customer choose the horse, but it had to be the one closest to the door.


you’re right that lemma means “proposition”. But when you translate any word from a foreign language you run into difficulties. Even in English, the word “proposition” can be given a hundred different nuances. This particular Greek slant on the word “proposition” means horns of a bull.

Honest, if you don’t believe me, check the OED.

You guys have catch-22 all wrong; it’s not a choice between contradictory alternatives, or equally undesirable alternatives. It’s a catch, one that turns a course of action against itself.

The original: Yossarian, a military pilot, wants to quit flying missions; the only way to do this is to prove he’s unfit - i.e., crazy. He can’t prove he’s crazy however, because wanting to quit flying missions proves he’s sane. The mere fact of applying results in the rejection of the application. It’s the second part that’s catch-22.

Dilemma is probably the best word here; Achernar is correct, but I’ll expand – a dilemma is, in logic, an argument wherein a choice must be made between two equally attractive or unattractive propositions. In common parlance, it’s as close as you can get to the OP.

The OP doesn’t specify which of the many lose-lose situations is being described; in addition to the dilemma, there’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” for example.

Another term used for this sort of situation is a “double bind.”

A Gordian Knot.

Slang, I know, but we always called this Hobson’s choice or Devil’s Alternative

Peoplesoft® installation?

Huh? I think you may be confused. In a dilemma (literally “two premises”), the two propositions are often called “horns”. This seems to be from the Latin synonym of dilemma, argumentum cornutum (literally “horned argument”). The idea seems to be that if you don’t poke yourself on one point, you’ll poke yourself on the other. I don’t know where you get your information about battle tactics, or how you think the Greek word [symbol]lhmma[/symbol] ever meant “horn of a bull”, but there’s nothing like that in the OED that I could find.

How about quandary:
1: a situation from which extrication is difficult especially an unpleasant or trying one
2: state of uncertainty or perplexity especially as requiring a choice between equally unfavorable options.

Actually, I think that was last century.

GuanoLad, yeah, last century, sorry.


If you checked the full OED then I’ll accept that. I don’t have access to the OED myself but my dictionary, Chambers, defines dilemma as:

(my bolding)

Although, I’m not sure where I got the battle stuff from. I seem to recall hearing it from a reliable source but I could be wrong.

Caught between a rock and a hard place.

Caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

…I just wanted to say a much-belated “thank you!” to everyone for their help. I am in your debt.

I was talking with the smartest person I know on the planet (I’m not kidding, she is really up there), and was reminiscing about our time in grad school. I explained a conflict that I had with my supervisor back then, about how many circumstances made my position there impossible to work out. She said,

“So basically, you were fucked.”

At that moment, I knew that she understood the situation.

zero-sum game?


“Torn between Two Lovers.”