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Idioms for when both options are bad.


A decade ago, I vividly remember facing a dilemma where neither option was good. A department I was responsible for had a basement with twelve pumps, individually coupled to 4160 VAC motors. This pumping system supplied water to an intricate ductwork system that cooled gases over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit to below 200 degrees. But as we were pumping water to the applicable system, we were also discharging substantial amounts into the basement as it began to rise quickly.


As the water rose, we immediately began shutting the shop down to remove the heat source. But time was not on our side, as the shop was not in a safe position yet to shut down, and the flooding water was about to enter the frames of the individual motors. An immediate decision was needed. Do we let the motors start blowing up, one by one, as water enters their housing? Or do we shut down all the pumps, sacrificing the ductwork by starving it with a lack of water? Either way, each option was going to be expensive.


Many of us have faced dilemmas where neither option is good. These are not the scenarios where there is a true or false. These are not scenarios with a right and a wrong. These are the situations where it is just going to suck, regardless of the decision.

I recently found myself in a predicament to choose one of two bad options. This recent scenario reminded me of when I flooded the basement, yet it challenged me to consider an alternative idiom to describe a scenario where both options are wrong. I wanted to avoid the classics like a double-edged sword, the lesser of two evils, or caught between a rock and a hard place. I wanted something a little more exciting and flashy. I wanted some options to use that were unique, relatable, and complimentary to complications to decide on these types of scenarios. Here we go.

  1. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” - A song by the English punk rock band “The Clash,” from their album Combat Rock. Written in 1981 with Mick Jones on lead vocals, it had the lyrics that everyone knows, “If I go, there will be trouble, and if I stay, it will be double.”

  2. Hobson's choice - A saying claimed to have originated from a horse-stable owner named Thomas Hobson. With a stable full of horses for loan, Hobson only provided the option to have the horse nearest to the door or no horse at all. Obviously, to the person who needed the horse, the horse closest to the door was recently returned by someone else and was most likely worn out.

  3. Kobayashi maru - An original StarTrek training simulation where a cadet faces a no-win scenario involving a ship needing assistance in a location where doing so would violate a treaty with the Klingons.

  4. Morton’s Fork - The Lord Chancellor under King Henry VII, John Morton was responsible for collecting taxes from everyone, regardless of their status.

  5. Scylla and Charybdis - Scylla and Charybdis are the two Odyssey monsters that inhabit the Strait of Messina. If one sailed near Scylla, the six-headed beast, each of her heads would feast on a crewmember. However, if they were to sail towards Charybdis, there would be a giant whirlpool that destroyed everything within its perimeter three times per day.

If the subject is seen to live frugally, tell him because he is clearly a money saver of great ability, he can afford to give generously to the King. If, however, the subject lives a life of great extravagance, tell him he, too, can afford to give largely, the proof of his opulence being evident in his expenditure. John Morton - 42courses.com

In my basement scenario, I elected to run the system to time their shutdown when the shop was ready. But my timing was off and motors started to fail. One by one, five motors failed before we were in a position in the shop to shut down the other pumps and stop the basement from flooding without damaging the ductwork. Looking back, the incident deserves any of the idioms above. However, I will save the root cause of that incident for another day and a different type of idiom.


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