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How do you call a situation in which you seemingly have a choice, but whatever you choose it will be to your disadvantage in one way or another?

12 Answers 12

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As others have said there are many expressions describing a situation in which there is no apparent beneficial outcome, such as choose the lesser of two evils, between a rock and a hard place, etc.

It could also be called a no-win situation.

  • I don't think no-win implies a meaningful choice. – Loren Pechtel Jul 5 at 23:50
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    I've heard trekkies talk about a "kobayashi maru" for such a situation with only bad options. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobayashi_Maru – RandomForestRanger Jul 6 at 9:53
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    @RandomForestRanger In the movie dialogue, they call it a "no-win situation". Kobayashi Maru is a leadership test that incorporates this problem. – Barmar Jul 6 at 17:15
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    @LorenPechtel Yes, it does. It necessarily implies that you're trying to make a decision about what actions to take, even though you know all of them result in an ultimately bad outcome. This typically amounts to a choice about what kind of loss you suffer. – jpmc26 Jul 7 at 13:23
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    @LorenPechtel You wouldn't describe that as a no-win situation because there's no relevant choice on the matter. – jpmc26 Jul 8 at 5:56
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One might say than in such a situation, you're faced with two evils (or maybe more than two). There's a commonly used phrase choose the lesser of two evils:

To pick the less offensive of two undesirable options.
I wasn't excited about going to a seminar all weekend, but I also didn't want to lose my license, so I chose the lesser of two evils and spent the weekend learning about new regulations in our field.
Do you really want to get a demerit for not having your blazer? Just choose the lesser of two evils and tell the teacher you forgot it—maybe she'll take pity on you!

(source: The Free Dictionary)

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There are many such idioms in English. You could say you are "caught on the horns of a dilemma," "between a rock and a hard place," "between the devil and the deep blue sea," "between Scylla and Charybdis." These generally all mean you are faced with two equally unpleasant options. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/on-the-horns-of-a-dilemma

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    Of these, the only I've heard in common American English is "between a rock and a hard place". I could probably have deduced what "caught on the horns of a dilemma" means but I think "between Scylla and Charybdis" would be lost on the average American. – Reticulated Spline Jul 5 at 17:52
  • Horns of a dilemma is still common enough in some AmE circles. And some of us are old enough to remember Christina Applegate being "stuck on the horns of an enema" 30 years ago. – A C Jul 5 at 23:45
  • "Scylla and Charybdis" is pretty rare in British English, but you see it a few times a year in the Houses of Parliament, presumably from those who studied Greek at school. – jonathanjo Jul 15 at 16:04
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In that situation, you are said to have a Sophie's Choice.

Example (from Wiki):

We've been given a Sophie's Choice. We can improperly care for some children vs. improperly care for other children.

  1. A choice where every alternative has significant negative consequences.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Sophie%27s_choice

  • Sophie's Choice came out in 1979 and so won't be as familiar as some of other expressions. – jonathanjo Jul 15 at 15:38
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The expression lose-lose situation (any choice is as bad as all the others), as mentioned by Ryan, is probably the best one so far. All I can do is recommend you another way to describe a situation where all outcomes are considered equally bad:

Either choice is bad any way you slice it.

Here's how the Macmillan Dictionary defines any way you slice it:

used for saying that something remains true, whatever way you consider it

Example: The book is a bestseller any way you slice it.

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A lot of answers here (lose-lose, lesser of two evils, horns of a dilemma, rock & hard place) seem to indicate choosing between two options. Where there are a number of distasteful options the general idiom I've come across is: The best of a bad bunch

Yes, it looks like you have a range of choices, but in an ideal world, you wouldn't select any of them. Since you have to choose one, you pick the best of a bad bunch.

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Damned if you do, damned if you don't is another common idiom conveying this.

A situation in which one can't win. For example, If I invite Aunt Jane, Mother will be angry, and if I don't, I lose Jane's friendship-I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. [Colloquial; first half of 1900s]

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"Dilemma" can work well in some cases:

di·lem·ma (noun) a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially equally undesirable ones.

Also, I like "lose-lose" mentioned above – but “dilemma" is more formal.

  • I think of a dilemma as something that negatively affects the other side of the choice, not directly a negative outcome in general. – mazunki Jul 7 at 18:34
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It's called a zugzwang.

CHESS
noun: Zugzwang
a situation in which the obligation to make a move in one's turn is a serious, often decisive, disadvantage.
"black is in zugzwang"

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    In Zugzwang, the emphasis is more about being forced to move creating the negative consequence; not just all the moves resulting in negative consequences. Imagine you are in a room with two doors, and going out either door will lead to your death -- but as long as you stay in the room, you won't die immediately. The last point is what makes it a zugzwang situation. It has more similarity to the terms "stalemate" or "Mexican standoff" than it does to "no-win situation" or "Sophie's Choice". – onigame Jul 7 at 5:58
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    This would not be familiar to the average English speaker, as it's an uncommon word that's mostly encountered in the context of high-level chess play. – Hearth Jul 7 at 14:15
  • This is arcane. – Lambie Jul 15 at 15:48
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I'll add

Catch-22

It's from an old satire story about American military life. This particular allusion is to intentionally self-defeating regulation. In the story, a soldier may apply for relief from battle on grounds of insanity, per regulation 22, but had to make the application himself. However, the ability to recognize one's own insanity proves no insanity exists at all, thus the soldier would "catch [regulation] 22" and his request would be denied.

The most appropriate use for this should be when you have a choice, but outcomes are identical, but common usage is for a selection of choices and all outcomes are not favorable.

Whatever your choices, I give you The Clash while you decide.

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    it's from the novel: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller – Lambie Jul 15 at 15:47
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Here, we call it "elections".. But you could say "entre a cruz e a espada" in Portuguese ('between cross and sword' literally). If all your 'options' are bad, you dont choose. Except on elections. Actually, not joking or trolling, but people just don´t get it...

  • I have never heard of the word being used that way. – nick012000 Jul 7 at 16:50
  • @nick012000 - I, too, have never heard it expressed that way before, but given all the discontentment around politics these days, it’s an apt metaphor. – J.R. Jul 8 at 0:30
  • Who is "we"? And why are you talking about Portuguese? Surely, you mean eleições means choices? – Lambie Jul 15 at 15:45
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A typical term for this scenario is to refer to "Morton's fork". The etymology for this dates back to tax collectors in medieval England, after a scheme proposed by a bishop named John Morton, which held that anyone who lived modestly must be saving money and thus could pay their taxes, while anyone who was living lavishly must be wealthy and can thus also afford to pay taxes.

  • Super arcane. :) – Lambie Jul 15 at 15:48

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