The Grammarphobia Blog

No, it’s not spelled d-i-l-e-m-n-a

Q: You say in Origins of the Specious that “dilemma” is the proper spelling of the word for a situation with unpalatable choices. I’ve always spelled it “dilemna” and that’s the spelling in a Modern Library paperback of Robinson Crusoe that claims to follow the original 18th-century edition except for the long s’s. Any help?

A: The proper spelling of the word is and always has been “dilemma,” not “dilemna.”

Besides writing about the misspelling in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, we’ve discussed it in a blog posting.

The misspelling does turn up in print, though rarely. We’ve found two 1719 printings of Robinson Crusoe online that spell the word with an “n,” which has to mean that either Defoe or his printer made a mistake.

We think the error was the printer’s, because Defoe correctly spelled “dilemma” in some of his earlier works.

For example, he used the word in An Essay Upon Projects (1697). Here’s the passage, in a section about unfortunate widows:

“ … the Poor Young Woman, it may be, has Three or Four Children, and is driven to a thousand shifts, while he lies in the Mint or Friars under the Dilemma of a Statute of Bankrupt; but if he Dies, then she is absolutely Undone, unless she has Friends to go to.”

And here it is again, in Defoe’s novel The Compleat Mendicant, or, Unhappy Beggar (1699):

“Being now deliver’d from this strange Dilemma, which, notwithstanding, had exhausted all my Stock; Moneyless, Friendless, and Disconsolate I wander from one place to another….”

Both of those quotations were copied from facsimile pages, as originally published, and available in the Early English Books Online database. We’ve left out Defoe’s italics and the long s’s that look like f’s.

The word appears only once, early on, in Volume 1 of Robinson Crusoe.

There were six authorized editions of the novel published in 1719 (we found only two of them), and at least some had “errata” that were later corrected.

The two early versions we found were both published in 1719 by W. Taylor in London, one labeled “third edition” and one “fourth edition.”

Here’s how the relevant passage reads in both of them:

“In this Dilemna, as I was very pensive, I stept into the Cabin, and sat me down, Xury having the Helm, when on a sudden the Boy cry’d out Master, Master, a Ship with a Sail, …” (Again, we didn’t reproduce Defoe’s italics or those picturesque long s’s.)

The spelling is corrected to “dilemma” in every later edition of the book that we’ve been able to find, from the 1790s onward.

Robinson Crusoe was wildly popular from the beginning, and those early authorized editions were followed by scores of others.

In some, publishers took great liberties, making cuts and changing Defoe’s wording, phraseology, paragraphing, and more.

But later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, versions appeared that were advertised as authentic and based on the original texts. All of the them that we found used the correct “dilemma” spelling.

For example, “dilemma” was used in editions published in London in 1810 and 1815 that restored Defoe’s original wording (as quoted above).

Another edition, published in London in 1866 with antiquated spellings and capitalizations, uses “dilemma.” This edition claimed to be “edited after the original editions,” and the editor said it had been collated from the 1719 texts.

That 1866 edition is virtually identical to two others (London, 1882 and 1905), both claiming to have been taken from the 1719 texts and edited by the Victorian novelist Henry Kingsley.

In summary, all of those early versions said to be “edited after the original” used the correct spelling of “dilemma.”

We haven’t seen the Modern Library paperback. If, as you say, the editors used the incorrect spelling, we can only note that the editors of other “authentic” editions chose to use the correct spelling.

In case you’re interested, Michael Quinion has written about the “dilemma/dilemna” phenomenon on his website World Wide Words.

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