When Oliver Hardy of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team accused his friend and partner Stan of getting them “into another fine mess,” was he referring to a dilemma or a predicament?
The distinction may be subtle. Both involve troublesome situations, though a predicament is generally seen as less dire than a dilemma. Predicament generally means “a difficult or trying situation.”
With his right arm wedged beneath a boulder in a remote area of Utah, Aron Ralston faced the dilemma of choosing between starving to death before he was found or amputating his arm and rappelling to safety. He was literally between a rock and a hard place, with these two “equally unsatisfactory alternatives,” as Merriam-Webster describes the word dilemma. Neither choice offered a positive outcome. Ralston chose amputation and lived to tell about it.
Now, more than a decade after his harrowing experience, the most difficult choices Ralston faces may be which speaking engagement to accept. Scheduling conflicts or deciding between two venues may present a predicament—but nothing close to the dilemma he faced in that canyon.
The idiom “on the horns of a dilemma” is another way of saying you have two unacceptable options. It comes from the idea of presenting two choices to a person as if horns of a bull. Regardless of his choice, he will be impaled.
Although the word dilemma is losing a bit of its unpleasant force, I’ll still take a predicament over a dilemma any day.