My feathers were ruffled somewhat this afternoon. My husband asked, “How do you spell dilemma?” Now I like to think ‘words’ are something I’m relatively good at. True, sometimes I have to write a word down to be sure, but generally speaking, I can spell.
I replied with confidence “D.I.L.E.M.N.A.”.
Oh, the glee on his face as he shook his head! “Nope, it’s D.I.L.E.M.M.A.”
I frowned and shook my head, “Nope, I’m pretty sure it’s D.I.L.E.M.N.A.” I was sure it was one of those weird spellings that had been drummed into me at school.
It turns out (annoyingly), he was right. I lost nearly a whole afternoon researching the elusive ‘dilemna’. I found out I am not the only person in the world to be taught to spell ‘dilemna’ with a silent ‘n’. In spite of his earlier smugness, even my husband confessed he thought he had been taught to spell it with a silent ‘n’ too. Chance are you were also taught to spell it with a silent ‘n’.
So how on earth did this spelling misdemeanour become so entrenched in our collective consciousness?
Initially, I put the ‘mm’ spelling down to American usage. Perhaps somehow this had crossed over into common usage and no-one had noticed. Nope! I realised as I researched further dilemma has NEVER been spelt with a silent ‘n’. There was no point in sticking to my guns. Clearly – shock, horror – I was wrong. I still can’t quite absorb the painful truth.
If we take a look at the etymology of dilemma we can see it first appeared around 1520, and came from Latin Antiquity. Dilemma, from Greek dilemma “double proposition,” a technical term in rhetoric, from ‘di’ meaning “two” and ‘lemma’ meaning “premise, anything received or taken,” (from the root of lambanein “to take”). It should be used only of situations where someone is forced to choose between two alternatives, both being unfavourable.
So why have so many of us around the world been taught with a silent ‘n’? God only knows, but if you take a quick Google trip you will see there are actually discussion boards out there on the subject. Seriously! That said, no-one seems to have come up with a rational explanation. The silent ‘n’ alternative is never even offered up as nonstandard spelling in some reputable dictionaries. How can this be? Even trusty Grammar Girl doesn’t offer any explanation though the site does point to another point of reference World Wide Words which goes into detail about the errant spelling. What I found most surprising that it’s not just the English or the Americans that have been spelling it wrong. In French it sometimes appears as dilemne instead of dilemme. Native French speakers say they, too, were taught the wrong form. It is frequent enough that it appears in lists of common spelling mistakes. In French, it’s said to be the consequence of a false comparison with indemne.
So a veritable word mystery no less. I’d love to know how you spell Dilemna, (yes OK squigly line I meant Dilemma). I’d also love to know your theories as to why so many of us were taught the wrong spelling!