Thursday, August 16, 2007

The dilemna of spelling dilemma

My brain just broke. Apparently, there are millions of people across the English-speaking world who have been taught by school teachers and text books to spell dilemma with a silent N.

See the comments such as:

I grew up in Los Angeles, started kindergarten in 1962. I, too, was taught to spell it dilemna. My understanding was that the spelling was later changed. It’s hard to believe that we all were merely being taught to spell a word incorrectly. It had to have been in textbooks all over the country.

and

I know that I learned the MN spelling at some point in school, because I have always used the mnemonic (please don’t tell me I’ve been spelling THAT incorrectly, too) trick of pronouncing it silently as “dil-em-na” whenever I write it, so that I am (was) sure to remember the important silent-N.


And this was before the coming of the amazing misinformation delivery system known as Teh Interwebs.

Googlefight shows there is a small but significant minority who have been taught to insert a silent-N into dilemma: 346,000 hits compared to 32,300,000 hits.

64 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh mercy me! I was just typing a YouTube video description and I mentioned "The Neil Young Dilemna" and the stoo pedd spell check underlined DILEMNA.

So being the very modern fifty one year old college graduate and corporate businessman (person) that I am, I right clicked on the dopey underlined word only to find that the hideous spell check thingamabob thinks the word is properly spelled DILEMMA!!!!!!!!!!!

On top of that, I find out that those of us who learned it as dilem N A have been toting around all these heavy mental images in order to spell it correctly when the whole world thinks we're nutz.

That's it, I'm just going to go on merrily spelling everything anyway I want from now on. I'll protest.

Anonymous said...

it was very embarrassing in class while teaching I wrote the spelling of the word dilemna and later on in the same chapter found it to be dilemma.It was very difficult to accept that all my life I had been taught the wrong spelling.

Anonymous said...

I am 61 and just found out I am one of MANY people who write "dilemna" instead of "dilemma"......there is that crazy red spellcheck marker again...lol. I was very proud of my spelling in elementary school and competed in bees. This feels like a bad joke. I have googled dilemna and found that people from many different backgrounds were taught this spelling........most peculiar, Mama.

Anonymous said...

I am 63 and today just learned of the other spelling. I think it should be reported in the paper when the accepted spelling of word is changed. However, read the web and you see "dilemna"all over. We are not that small a minority.

Anonymous said...

You're not alone. I'm 47 and was taught dilemna. Went to school in Ireland, and have been reading that people all over the English speaking world were taught the mn spelling.

Thinking this must be a case of a spelling being Americanised, I looked up both the Oxford and Cambridge English Dictionaries (the British versions, not the American) and the spelling is given as dilemma, no alternative.

That said, as a school kid we all had standard dictionaries we were required to use, and I am positive dilemna was in it, because I still remember our teacher making us look it up, along with the spellings of other words that had a silent n.

Strange.

Daniel said...

I don't think I'm going to have a dilemna over this. I have lived long enough to not care. If the spelling police decide to come after me I will just remember that its because they have nothing better to do. I will continue to buck the system, especially when there is no real reason for a rule, and no penalty which I find unbearable. Considering that the english language has exceptions to every spelling rule, as long as the word cant be easily confused with another, I don't see a problem.

Anonymous said...

OK - I too learned to spell this word as "dilemna". I Googled it today just to be sure, and was horrified to find that somewhere along the line, the spelling was changed. "Dilemma" just can't be right!

Anonymous said...

I am 32 and learnt "dilemna" - both at UK school and from Irish parents. So we can narrow down the spelling change to some time after the mid-eighties ;-)

Anonymous said...

I am 41 and was also taught dilemna in the NJ school system. I never questioned it even after reading Omnivore's Dilemma...until just five minutes ago when I decided to google it to see if I had spelled it correctly.

Anonymous said...

I am a 54 year old solicitor and have just been red-lined for the spelling of dilemna. I too was taught that the correct spelling included the silent "n". I have decided that I will continue to spell it this way. We will change it back. Join the revolt!

Anonymous said...

You're all crazy! It is spelled with 2 M's and always has been.

I was grammar school and college educated and have never ever seen it spelled any other way than d i l e m m a

On checking the Oxford English Dictionary, it only contains one way of spelling it

Anonymous said...

Not very nice indeed! We are not all nuts... So many people from different countries, in various age categories did not share the same English teacher! I was taught Dilmna. My colleague, here at the Library, was taught the same spelling, and she is younger than me still. A patron old enough to be my mother was taught this as well. We do not share the same schooling, or cultural backgrounds. There has been a change in the accepted spelling somewhere along the line. I am going to take a guess at the 1980's. Regardless, if "double-double" in accepted in the dictionary now...why not!

Scarlet Gypsy said...

I've been doing a google search for information about this, and came across your blog.
I'm 18 years old, and have been taught to spell it as dilemna all my life. When I sound it out to make sure I'm spelling it right, I always say dil-em-na. What's interesting is that I attended grade school in two different places - British Columbia and Ontario (Canada). It wasn't until I noticed firefox correcting it that I decided to double check.
I'm dumbfounded, as I've always been told by my teachers to spell it with an MN instead of MM. The double M just looks odd to me.

Rebecca said...

I'm 23 and have always spelled it dilemna, so if it changed in the 80s my teachers did not get the memo. I've always considered myself to be very good at spelling, so finding out about the dilemna dilemma is just odd.

Anonymous said...

I'm 20, started school in Canada, then the US...wasn't till I came to France that I learned I was spelling it wrong...I, too, pronounce it di-lem-na in my head to 'remember' the spelling...so I think I must have learned it that way...I'm going to ask my brothers and my parents and see how they would spell it...

Anonymous said...

The reason it is widely accepted to use the double M intead of MN is because the masses are incapable of complex concepts like silent letters. Most of these letters are not silent, but are representative of subtle(soon to be suttle?) pronunciations that have fallen into disuse. Is it better to keep things simple? It is for the simple.

Anonymous said...

I am only 17 and from Australia and have always thought that it was 'dilemna'. It was only today that I googled it when the predictive text on my phone spelled it with a double m, not 'mn'. I find this very strange as my whole life I have been spelling it out in my head the wrong way. Evidently, the spelling has been changed relatively recently and therefore that is why there is this confusion.

Anonymous said...

I only today learned of the other spelling (dilemma). To me, it has and always will be dilemna.

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I am 34 and from Ireland - I was also taught to spell the word as DILEMNA and have been obsessive about getting right all my life. It was only recently that I got flagged by the dreaded spell checker on an email at work that I realised there was even an alternative. I am going to check an old 1960s Oxford dictionary that we have at home to see what way it was spelt in those days...

Anonymous said...

Curious argument. I don't remember specifically being taught dilemna, but I use the mnemonic di-lem-na to remember the spelling as well. However, I am also aware that the word dilemma (the correct spelling) comes from two lemmas (premises or assumptions). So, dilemna never would have made sense, unless at some point the spelling of lemma changed as well.

Anonymous said...

Firefox just checked my spelling of "dilemna" and I laughed at the suggestion it offered. Surely there couldn't be two M's. I assumed it must be one of those things were the americanized version is spelled differently, like in the words "favourite" or "modelling." Then google broke my brain trying to figure it out. I am a 26 year old Canadian, with a Master's degree from Oxford and I have never before seen the word spelled with two M's. My whole world is spinning right now. ;)

Anonymous said...

"Dilemma" comes from Greek, and first appeared in English as "dilemma" in 1523. The Greek word "lemma" means "proposition" and a "dilemma" is "two propositions." The spelling "dilemna" came from some error, somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I am so surprised to know that this discussion is apparently worldwide, and now I am wondering which of my English teachers taught us to spell it with a silent n. Because like the other posters here, I always used the mnemonic device of splling it out as di-lem-na in my head to remember it right. Wow, I wonder if this is a worldwide experiment of some sort..

Anonymous said...

I too was taught dilemna, it was hammered into us as kids and I have always been proud of my spelling prowess. Indeed I am the person people come to for correct spellings.

Anonymous said...

I do think if the speeling has been changed then it needs to be changed back, I am joining the revolt dilemna it is!

Anonymous said...

Just realised I spelt spelling as speeling in that last messge, how unfortunate

Tony said...

I just found this article after looking up "dilemma or dilemna".

I grew up in rural North Carolina and was taught that the correct spelling of the word was 'dilemna'.

I only bothered to look it up tonight because Microsoft Word was telling me that it was incorrect.

Interesting.

Anonymous said...

I also learned it as 'dilemna', and there you go, like it or not. The argument that 'dilemma' must be correct because it is derived from 'lemma' sounds good until you remember that many english words exhibit far greater changes in spelling (from the word they were derived from), than 'dilemna' from 'lemma'. There are other words that have been changed as well, to suit the simpleminded no doubt... 'orthopaedic' being one of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 26 yr old native Californian, and for maybe a couple of years now have spelled it with 2 Ms, only because I'd been corrected as such; I swear I learned to spell it with the N but had given up on it. I'm willing to accept it's a double M, especially with some people even offering up proof, assuming they're not liars, of its roots and first appearances in the English language and so forth. I wish someone would just apologize for teaching it with an N and making us feel crazy or stupid!

Anonymous said...

Add another one in the 'dilemna' camp! I have no idea where I got the spelling from originally, but after calling my mother I confirmed she always thought it had a silent N as well.

My mother was born in the 1950's and emigrated from England to Australia when young, while I was raised in the late 80's-early 90's. My best friend, on the other hand, is the same age and backrgound as me and always spelled it "corectly". It's definitely a mystery.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I'm only 19 but until today I knew the word was dilemna. I lived in New Zealand for 2 years but mostly have lived in the United States. Ha even as I write this there is a red line under the word. I guess there will be a "dilemma" in my mind every time I spell the word now.

Anonymous said...

Add me to the dilemna dilemma!

beezdotcom said...

I'm only half-joking when I suggest that perhaps this is evidence of a barely perceptible collision of parallel universes. So MANY people (including myself) have such vivid memories of specifically using mnemonics to remember the 'n' - and yet I freely admit that I can find NO texts that purport to show that as even an ALTERNATIVE correct spelling at any time in history (which tends to invalidate the argument of some folks that it merely fell out of use due to laziness).

Parallel universes...we haz them.

Anonymous said...

I am joining the revolt to change the spelling back to dilemna! I believe that the correct pronunciation used to include the "n" sound. People got lazy tongues somewhere along the line, and that's why it sounds like dilemma today. I'll also continue to pronounce February correctly- pronouncing it with the second "r". Our rallying call should be, "We will not succumb to a lazy tongue!"

misterbarryman said...

Are you kidding me. Dilemna, for those of you who have not busied yourselves reading the Apokrypha of Greek mythology, was the Goddess of indecision. She was in love with two Gods, Presbitos and Valikodos, and died chaste and heartbroken without ever making up her mind. To use the other ridiculous spelling would be a sacrilege and an eternal rebuke for the life she so seriously wasted.

Helen said...

I just wrote an email using 'dilemna' and it was red underlined. I did spell check only to read the 'dilemma' spelling. I was horrified! When in the world did the spelling change? And who has the authority to change a perfectly good spelling to an awful one that doesn't even look as sophisticated as the 'incorrect' one? I'm not happy with this. How many other words have been changed. I'm 60 years old, was always a good student and prided myself on my spelling and vocabulary. Oh woe is me!!

Scarlet said...

MisterBarryMan, I sincerely hope that your post was completely sarcastic and I just missed it. It sounds like it is, considering you mention the "Apocrypha of Greek Mythology"... Since one of the meanings of Apocrypha is "of questionable authenticity".
In any case, joke or not, I find your post extremely offensive, and sacrilegious.

beezdotcom said...

Look! Look! We are NOT crazy!!

http://www.google.com/search?q=%22dilemna%22&tbs=bks%3A1%2Ccdr%3A1%2Ccd_min%3A1800%2Ccd_max%3A1820&lr=lang_en

CoachKeith said...

If we allow DILEMNA to be spelled dilemma how long will it be before COLUMN is spelled columm, and HYMN hymm, and DAMN damm, and even RHYTHMN spelled rhythmm.

Anonymous said...

i'm 50, went to grade school in the 1960s and 1970s, and, as others can attest to, was ALWAYS taught that it was spelled "dilemna". obviously, the reason we who were taught this remember it so well is that "dilemna" was not spelled trhe way it looks -- (like "mnemonic", as someone said before). it was one of those weird words that one had to memorize in order to get it right.

my intuition is that "dilemna" was indeed comsidered the proper way at one time -- but because (like many words) people could never remember it, "dilemma" became accepted and shown in dictionaries. for those of you who don't know, dictionaries follow usage. if enough people all over the world start spelling "believe" like this -- "beleeve" -- then taht will become the common spelling.

Anonymous said...

Having looked around the internet there seems to be no case for assuming the spelling of dilemma has changed in the last hundred years. Despite checking many dictionaries published during that period no one has found dilemna listed as a correct or alternative spelling.

Go back further and you may find instances of the 'mna' version, possibly as typos. Reading old documents shows that spelling was not standardised before dictionaries appeared and even educated people used different spellings of the same word in a single document.

I suspect dilemna was a typo in a school text book that perpetuated over many years.

Anonymous said...

The Pears Encyclopedia dictionary section published in 1961 spells the word dilemma. I am a 66 year old Australian who has used dilemna since school. The hmaun bairn can do mellvaruos tnighs so I sgusget the error has occurred because of a simple optical illusion caused by the juxtaposition of the mm. Perhaps some poor quality printing with smeared ink and unclear font, possibly in many diverse publications, caused readers to see the right stem of the first m and the left stem of the 2nd m as one stem, creating an incorrect visual. This may have optically appeared to be mn to readers in different English localities and introduced into text books.

Anonymous said...

hmm... interesting indeed.
i have always prided myself on my perfect spelling and have always spelled it dilemna, and just to throw a wrench in your "dilemma" spelling, i'll let you know that i have what is called eidetic, or photographic memory, have attended several schools in many states and countries, and not only have i always been taught it as dilemna, but i clearly remember reading it in more than 3 different dictionaries as dilemna, and never as "dilemma".

Anonymous said...

I'm not all that old (mid-30s) and I SWEAR I was taught dilemma was spelled with a silent "n": dilemna. This was in the 1980s in the United States.

I was a straight A student and class valedictorian. I went on to college, graduating with two undergraduate degrees--with honors, no less--and a graduate degree. I got a perfect 800 on the verbal section of the GRE...

and still...

I always believed it was spelled "dilemna."

Heidi Helene(NoNoSugarMomma, Helpful Heidi's Hints)) said...

Oh EM GEE! I have always been taught dilemna. I just asked my mom how to spell it. She said with an N. Now I am actually thinking it's an internet conspiracy and I am going to the library tomorrow to look it up, in every dictionary I can find. How in the heck have so many people across the country have a spelling that is not in any dictionaries? I'll be back tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

I can't comprehend that the spelling is dilemma. It looks weird and wrong. I've ALWAYS spelt it dilemna and I think I always will. But I've been looking around at these sorts of blogs on the internet about it and I'm really confused..

Everyone else that spells is dilemna seems to be in their 40s or 50s.. I'm 22 and finished highschool in 2005. Why do I still spell it with an N??

Melody said...

I too was taught to spell the word "dilemna". I remember this very clearly and now I find out it is supposed to be spelled "dilemma". Why has so many people, of all ages, from all over the world were taught to spell the world "dilemna" if it is incorrect?

Anonymous said...

Yep...I'm one of those who learned "dilemna". grrr. I'm sure there is a reasonable explanation!Graduated from HS in '85.

asoralvin said...

I would find it interesting to discover the reading habits and levels of those folk that recognize the existence of the less 'common' spelling dilemna/dilemma. Regional differences do not seem to explain why there is a minority's knowledge of the alternate spelling...(and within that group, their Primary spelling), using an 'n'.
For those who question the folk in the 'dilemna' court as wrongly taught , foolish or the like...they may have to accept that those in THIS dilemna, probably saw, read and used the word more often and in many different contextual scriptings....not just championing the phonetic simplicity of the commonly accepted 'dilemma'. (Or is that two L's because...) ??? [

asoralvin said...

BTW, you educated readers that find yourself in a personal dilemna over our ever increasing "...made for Dummies" approach to everything, including the 'streamlining' of the English language, DO NOT FALTER IN THE GENEROUS ADDITION THAT YOU MAKE POSSIBLE THROUGH YOUR SYNTAX.
Don't become another block in the DAM: Give a Damn, (with an n) hmm?

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm South African. We were also taught 'dilemNa'.
In fact, when that Nelly and Kelly song, -Dilemma- came out, I remember being horrified that they were spelling it wrong for the whole world to see.

Nicole said...

Can someone tell me why everyone is taking Google and Firefox and all these computerized spell-checkers as gospel? Google did not invent the word! Do you change the spelling of your name when it Google does not recognize the spelling?!?!? The problem is that when enough people spell a word wrong, the mis-spelled word ends up in the latest edition of the dictionary!!

Anonymous said...

OK, I too, was taught the "MNA" spelling and silently said dil-em-na when writing it in order to be accurate (schooled in upstate NY in the '60s and '70s). So imagine my surprise just now when I checked my old childhood Webster's - a huge 2000-page tome from 1957 - and found it spelled one way, and one way only: dilemma. The derivation shows as Greek from "di" meaning "two" and "lemma" meaning "proposition."
Go figure!

Philipp said...

I checked my 1945 dictionary. It says, "dilemma." I wrote a myspace blog on this same subject a few years ago and recently re-posted it here on blogspot. Very odd.

Anonymous said...

I have never spelled it any other way than dilemna. I just checked the Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary which I was given as a prize for winning the Regional Spelling Bee in fifth grade (1987) and the spelling is listed as DILEMMA.

It makes me sad, shocked, and VERY curious as to how this has become so twisted around in all of our heads! It hurts to type that second M. It really does. It looks so wrong to me. I have to force the letter in there and look away.

I'm glad so many other people have learned it with an N too. This misery loves company.

::hears Taps playing for dilemna::

Oh how I will miss thee...

Anonymous said...

Since we are all sharing our age; as a 54 year old with a passable Scottish education, I too was taught to spell it dileMNA. All your comments were incredibly useful and reassuring since I had visited a few other sites and exchanges which were insistent that the the correct spelling was dileMMA. I had somehow assumed that the dictionaries mentioned in the thread were surely out of date and that when I opened my trusty Collins English Dictionary then it would confirm the spelling was indeed with an N, or at the very least offer it as an alternative. NO! It indeed confirmed that the spelling was with the dreaded double M and offered no alternative.

Where was I when they announced this in the News? Its wrong on every level. I'm with the fifty one year old college graduate, I shall continue to ignore the wiggly red line and protest.

Anonymous said...

I am thirteen years old, have lived in the US all my life, and learned to spell it dilemNa. Neither of my parents spell it that way. I only learned of the "correct" spelling when I was eleven.

Anonymous said...

frankly I'm annoyed by spell checks that are centered on specifically commonwealth or american practice..
I also think that dilemna should be included within accepted spellings, in my pronunciation the mn represents a subtlety and mm sounds weird and like a foreign word or strange pronunciation, anyways, in point I think the strongest attack against spell-checker editions would be frequent usage of the words where they could be monitored (Google or yahoo for instance)

byoung1000 said...

I am 62 years old and this is the first time I've noticed it being spelled dilemma. I am certain that it was a word used in a spelling bee I won in 1962, and I spelled it dilemnathen and every time I've written it during my lifetime. I am an IT professional and have never noticed the spell checker changing it either. I must not use it very much.

Anonymous said...

Dictionary published in 1982 'dilemma'. I also learned to spell the word dilemna, in NC, NY and in overseas american military schools. First time I have used the word in ages? Maybe. First time spellcheck ever underlined it.

Anonymous said...

Alrit, I giv up. DLMA it is frum now on.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to inform everyone, but the spelling has never changed. It has been and always will be dilemma. There has never been a silent n in the word. Etymologically, it is from the Greek di -- meaning 'two' and lemma -- meaning 'precept'. I was also taught 'dilemna' but that is wrong. I have been spelling it correctly ever since I learned of my mistake. As to why the erroneous spelling came about, I think it might have its origins in the plural of 'dilemma' which is 'dilemnae' and not 'dilemmas'.
In the end, use whichever spelling you prefer. I choose to be accurate. Dilemma is no longer a dilemma for me.

Anonymous said...

The "mispelling" of dilemma goes back to at least 1720.

Brian said...

You misspelled "misspelled". ;-)

I'm sure that we are all agreed that "dilemma" is the one and only correct spelling, so there's no need to keep repeating what its Greek root is and so on. We get it.

What makes it intriguing is why SO MANY MILLIONS OF PEOPLE (myself included) who otherwise pride themselves on being good spellers in every other respect swear up and down that they thought it was spelled "dilemna".

This is not your run-of-the-mill spelling mistake (e.g. there/their/they're), which is exactly what makes it such a curiosity.

Its spelling most certainly did not change in the 1980s or whenever it is commenters grew up.

No one has yet been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation for this centuries-old misspelling that is not even considered a genuine spelling variation yet is common across so many different ages and countries.