Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Trilemma?

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Being on the horns of a dilemma is a very common saying.

However, I recently heard a commentator on a BBC Radio 4 programme refer to the ‘trilemma’ she was facing, meaning a choice between three options.

An interesting question arises here: is the neologism ‘trilemma’ really needed? Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of dilemma says the word refers to a choice between two alternatives. However, the Oxford Dictionary of English says that ‘dilemma’ can refer to a choice between ‘two or more’ alternatives.

Nonetheless, hearing the word ‘trilemma’ for the first time set me thinking. What if I had to choose between four, five, six or even more options? Here goes (just for fun):

  • Tetralemma
  • Pentalemma
  • Hexalemma
  • Heptalemma
  • Octalemma
  • Nonalemma
  • Decalemma

More neologisms

Commonly confused words and phrases

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Written by Wordwatch

18/04/2010 at 6:31 am

6 Responses

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  1. OED gets as far as tetralemma and then gives up the ghost with its lemmas, but if you are in great consternation about which of many parrots to buy, then the OED allows you to be in a polylemma.

    Dai

    18/04/2010 at 8:35 am

    • Good morning, Dai — hope the sun is shining in Wales as it is here. Your ‘polylemma’ made me laugh out loud. Thanks.

      Deborah

      18/04/2010 at 8:39 am

  2. *writing sternly worded letter of protest to Wordwatch board* “Gentlepersons: Re your posting of Sunday, 18th April: A smattering of Greek and Latin in the wrong hands, combined with idle time and a bare cupboard, can only lead to mischief. Sincerely yours, etc., M. Farrell. P.S. Nice cow.”

    Michael Farrell

    18/04/2010 at 3:13 pm

    • Dear Sir

      Thank you for drawing this matter to our attention. We take our grammatical responsibilities here at Wordwatch Towers very seriously; any frivolity or lowering of standards is very much frowned upon. We have sacked the member of staff concerned and told them not to darken our towels again.

      Our usual high standards will be resumed forthwith if not sooner and immediately.

      Yours more in sorrow than genuine concern.

      Etc.

      Chairbeing
      Wordwatch Towers Board

      Deborah

      18/04/2010 at 3:25 pm

  3. An interesting commentary by Pat O’Conner on the legions of students who were erroneously taught to spell it “dilemna”:
    http://www.grammarphobia.com/blogger-blog/2008/02/dilemma-inside-enigma.html

    Michael Farrell

    09/05/2010 at 9:28 pm

  4. That’s really interesting, thank you. I didn’t know that ‘lemma’ meant ‘assumption’. I also haven’t come across the incorrect spelling ‘dilemna’ before — but it seems as if it is quite common.

    Deborah

    10/05/2010 at 6:28 am


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