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Horned argument

Posted by E. on November 30, 1999

In Reply to: On the horns of a dilemma posted by Bob on November 29, 1999

: : I see this listed in the phrase finder, but no explanation as to its meaning or origin. The visual reference seems pretty clear, but who thunk it up? Any ideas?

: Originally, and very strictly, one was faced with two lemmas, two proven axioms, leaving you with an unpleasant choice. The source is Greek, and probably the easy association with two horns of a bull made this a figure of speech centuries ago. First English use? I don't have a clue. The word has become trivialized, and is now frequently applied to minor matters of choice.

HORNS OF A DILEMMA -- "A dilemma, in logic, is a form of argument in which a participant finds himself in the embarrassing predicament of having to make a choice of either of two premises, both of which are obnoxious; it is a trap set by an astute person to catch an unwary one, like answering yes or no to the question, ''Have you stopped beating your wife?''Because one may be caught and impaled upon either of the alternatives, each of them has been called a 'horn.' Medieval scholars, writing in Latin, used the expression, argumentum cornutum, horned argument. Nicolas Udall, in his translations of the adages collected (in Latin) by Erasmus explains the saying the language of 1548: 'Thys forked questyon; which the sophisters call a horned question, because that to whether of both partyes a bodye shall make a direct aunsweere, he shall renne on the sharpe poyncte of the horne.'" From A Hog on Ice by Charles Earle Funk.