noun di·lem·ma \də-ˈle-mə also dī-\

Definition of dilemma

  1. 1 :  an argument presenting two or more equally conclusive alternatives against an opponent

  2. 2a :  a usually undesirable or unpleasant choice faces this dilemma: raise interest rates and slow the economy or lower them and risk serious inflationb :  a situation involving such a choice here am I brought to a very pretty dilemma; I must commit murder or commit matrimony — George Farquhar; broadly :  predicament lords and bailiffs were in a terrible dilemma — G. M. Trevelyan

  3. 3a :  a problem involving a difficult choice the dilemma of “liberty versus order” — J. M. Burnsb :  a difficult or persistent problem unemployment … the great central dilemma of our advancing technology — August Heckscher


play \ˌdi-lə-ˈma-tik also -ˌdī-\ adjective

Usage of dilemma

Although some commentators insist that dilemma be restricted to instances in which the alternatives to be chosen are equally unsatisfactory, their concern is misplaced; the unsatisfactoriness of the options is usually a matter of how the author presents them. What is distressing or painful about a dilemma is having to make a choice one does not want to make. The use of such adjectives as terrible, painful, and irreconcilable suggests that dilemma is losing some of its unpleasant force.

Examples of dilemma in a sentence

  1. When it comes to the boss, there is a real dilemma. You're caught between a career-limiting rejection of virtual friendship or a career-limiting access to photos of yourself glassy-eyed at a party. —Jared Sandberg, Wall Street Journal, 10 July 2007

  2. What's a pampered 20-something to do when her rich fiancé goes on a business trip and comes back married to someone else? That's the dilemma facing Elle Medina in Nichols's delightfully silly, vivacious debut. —Publishers Weekly, 28 June 2004

  3. Both authors are prepared to dwell as long on the savor of a ripe melon as on the significance of a moral dilemma. —Roger Shattuck, New York Review of Books, 13 June 2002

  4. The country's decision to go to war has caused a major dilemma for its allies.

  5. We're facing a terrible dilemma.

  6. I don't know what to do; it's a real dilemma.

Origin and Etymology of dilemma

Late Latin, from Late Greek dilēmmat-, dilēmma, probably back-formation from Greek dilēmmatos involving two assumptions, from di- + lēmmat-, lēmma assumption — more at lemma

First Known Use: 1523

DILEMMA Defined for English Language Learners


noun di·lem·ma \də-ˈle-mə also dī-\

Definition of dilemma for English Language Learners

  • : a situation in which you have to make a difficult choice

DILEMMA Defined for Kids


noun di·lem·ma \də-ˈle-mə\

Definition of dilemma for Students

  1. :  a situation in which a person has to choose between things that are all bad or unsatisfactory He was faced with the dilemma of having to tell on his best friend, or not telling and getting blamed himself.

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up dilemma? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


feeling or affected by lethargy

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