The Grammarphobia Blog

A dilemma inside an enigma

Q: I have a question that has plagued me since childhood: Has the spelling of “dilemma” changed in the past 35 or so years? I could have sworn that it was “dilemna” when I learned to spell in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I remember this because I used to pronounce it phonetically – i.e., “di-lem-na” – as a joke.

A: Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

The word “dilemma,” which has been in English since the 1500s, has always been spelled with a double m. And yet legions of English-speakers from around the world not only spell it “dilemna,” but also (and here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a tree) INSIST that their teachers drummed this into them and ridiculed any “mistaken” efforts to spell it with two m’s.

No matter what you were taught, the correct spelling is “dilemma.” The word is derived from the Greek di (twice) and lemma (assumption). What it means, as you probably know, is a choice between two or more alternatives, all unfavorable. (Despite the “di” prefix, the word is now widely accepted as applying to more than two choices.) The alternatives are sometimes called the “horns” of the dilemma.

I’ve checked the Oxford English Dictionary for any variant spellings of the word, but the only “dilemna” I found was in a book on logic written by Thomas Wilson in 1551, and that was probably a typo, since printing was rather primitive in those days and spellings were sometimes arbitrary. I’ve also checked every other dictionary I have, including some bizarre 19th-century ones. No dice. Or, rather, no “dilemna.”

But in googling for “dilemna,” I got hundreds of hits, including the CNN headline “Seoul’s Missile Dilemna,” and in searching the New York Times archive, I found 11 appearances of “dilemna” since 1981.

Mostly, though, I find cries in the wilderness from people (both American and British) whose teachers apparently insisted on the spelling “dilemna” so vigorously that it became engraved on their brains! Who were these teachers and where did they get this harebrained idea? Did they (on both sides of the Atlantic) descend from a single Proto-Teacher born on another planet?

The odd “mn” spelling does have parallels in English: “condemn,” “solemn,” “alumna,” “limn,” “autumn,” “indemnity,” and others. Oddly, I came across many language sites noting that the French for “dilemma” is dilemme, yet the word is widely misspelled in France as dilemne. As one site pointed out, “En effet, la forme ‘dilemne’ n’existe pas.” This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Some things, and this apparently is one of them, are beyond me. I can’t account for the bizarre phenomenon of so very many people being taught – and taught INSISTENTLY – that “dilemna” is correct. If I ever become enlightened on this mysterious subject, I’ll report back!

With apologies to Winston Churchill, this is a dilemma, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

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