Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dilemma or Dilemna?

Within minutes of my previous posting, one of our very experienced press people sent an email with the terse subject line: headline typo. I wrote back and said, "No, that's how I learned to spell it."

He replied, "Never saw that before. Poses a real dilemma, dilemna, er, problem for me :-)"

(Even now, as I type this, Blogger desperately gives me a squiggle underneath "dilemna" courtesy of the automatic spell check!)

I asked my assistant, who is somewhat younger than I, how she spells the word. "D-i-l-e-m-m-a, of course."

My general counsel appeared for a meeting. She, of more comparable age, immediately included the "n". When I brought up the alternate view, she said, "It is wrong without the "n". I know that in my heart. I learned it that way."

Wanting to know the story, I sought the wisdom of the crowd (aka, the Internet). I found interesting theories there. There is no etymological reason to suggest that "dilemna" is correct. The Greek origin of the word is apparently lemma, which clearly lacks an "n".

But Wordwizard goes on to present many examples of "dilemna" from the near past and further back. The commenter who produced these noted:

I did note with some interest that all the 19th-century quotes I found . . . seemed to have their origin in publications from the U.S. Northeast (New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut), so there is a chance that this is the area in which the errant spelling was born. . . . .

[T]he nonstandard spelling was not just used by doofuses and the ignorati, but by very respectable folks . . . in journal articles, newspapers, magazines, etc., all of which I assume had editors to catch this type of thing. Well, it seems, many editors were similarly misinformed.

My best guess as to how this came about . . . is that on the model of such words as condemn, column, indemnity, and solemn someone mistakenly substituted an N for an M in a popular 19th-century school spelling book or guide and the misspelling propagated. It’s hard to imagine how, other than with a scenario similar to this, such a spelling, which appeared in no dictionaries, could have so thoroughly infiltrated the system and been so convincing to so many people who normally should have known better. But until a smoking gun is found, no one will be able to say for certain how this came about. In the mean time, I would definitely rate this up there as a great English orthographical mystery.

Finally, I had dinner tonight with a close boyhood friend who grew up with me in New York. He, without hesitation, used the "n", and we both remember being corrected in spelling bees when we failed to spell the word this way.

To return to my press guy, after a bit of back and forth on all this, he cried, "Uncle!"

To which I replied, "Umcle!"

46 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not a chance. It is "dilemma"!

English prof from DC said...

Dilemma has always been the correct spelling. Have never heard of your rendition.

Paul Levy said...

"...For the Democrats, including the three leading presidential candidates...maneuvers in Iowa and New Hampshire, the classic dilemna was posed: Do you want a big issue for the upcoming campaign or will you take..."
By: Thomas Oliphant|Date: Dec 23, 2007 http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2007/12/23/americas_energy_future/

Where did Tom Oliphant grow up? Answer: "He is a native of Brooklyn, a product of La Jolla High School in California, and a 1967 graduate of Harvard." http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/au-oliphant-thomas.asp

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a typo. Research on Google revealed the following hilarious comment:

"I don't know why I was taught the wrong spelling [of dilemma] but it seems to be a widespread occurance" (sic)

nonlocal

Paul Levy said...

From Facebook:

Marla: I learned to spell it dilemna (Toronto, 80's-90's). In college though recall discussing "prisoner's dilemma" - thought it could be either.

Stephen: I grew up, also in the New York area, at the same time you did. And I've never seen your preferred "dilemna" spelling, to which my iPhone also objects.

Paul Levy said...

From my sister:

In your Internet search you probably found a discussion about this on
Anu Garg's "A Word a Day", and also in his 2001 AWAD Issue 39 there
was similar debate:
http://wordsmith.org/awad/awadmail39.html

FWIW, I never even saw that spelling - dilemna - before.

Anonymous said...

The press guys says "For the record, I learned how to spell properly in Ohio. And I now consider this a conundrum in need of a solution."

Edouard said...

Hi Paul,

I am one of the international students that had the pleasure to meet you and listen to your presentation a few months back at the Fuqua School of Business.
Funny, enough, my French education has always taught me "dilemne". But it appears that nowadays, the French too use "Dilemme"! Funny...

Sharon said...

I am 64 years old, was raised and educated in Boston, including undergraduate and graduate degrees, and have never seen dilemma spelled with an "N".

Paul Levy said...

From Facebook:

Bob: I'm so amused by this. I also spelled it "dilemna" for years until somebody shoved a dictionary my way. I was shocked! Even now, my instinct is to revert...

burnman325 said...

Paul

Interesting, my son sent me this yesterday

Check out how proper your english is.
http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/beastly/#Abdomen

wrinkledman said...

Having been taught and learned that something is sew, does not make it so.

SFitzpatrick said...

I grew up my entire life in Massachusetts and - at least in the Westwood school system - it was always spelled with an 'n'.

Dilemna.

Cetus said...

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dilemna

The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary.

Theresa said...

I had to jump in on this one. I too grew up in New York and had a Catholic school education, although I don't think that spelling it "dilemna" is a regional thing. It is merely correct.

Mark said...

Spell Check in Outlook, Firefox and Google do not recognize "Dilemna" and suggests "Dilemma" as a correct word...
I am going to start using the word "Predicament" until clear resolution in the dilemma delimna is reached.

Michael said...

Paul:
Well of course it’s spelled differently in New England. During my 5 years there I could barely find a soul who knew to place the comma (or the period) INSIDE the quote marks, as is proper 99% of the time. Seems they were still addicted to the King’s English. And in PA, at least in Western and Central PA (where I spent 7 years) they’ve omitted the present tense of “to be” from the vocabulary (e.g. “The linens need washed.”)

I’m just glad to be in the South (for all of a month now) where no such predilections exist beyond the steadfast belief that in its history, Charleston has been occupied by “two foreign countries: England during the Revolution and the North.”

And having grown up in the Midwest (of your generation), I learned “dilemma” – as well as the notion to look for opportunities within the same.

Pat said...

Use “challenge” it will avoid the dilemma/dilemma challenge!

stop smoking help said...

Wow, this has stirred quite the dillemmnah (was that too easy?).

I grew up in Washington state, went to college in the midwest and have only seen it dilemma.

I find it amusing though that so many people have weighed in on the subject. Glad to see people still have a sense of humor these days.

I don't think my hospital administration has a sense of humor anymore.

Paul Levy said...

From Facebook:

Seth: I would refudiate dilemna. I grew up in the NYC area and literally have no recollection of ever seeing it spelled with an "n". Fascinating history, though.

Winnie: I guess then if some of us are going to lie about our age, we should stick with "dilemma," the alternative being a dead giveaway...

Bob: Paul, your post reminds me of a question I sought back in 2006. Is it health care or healthcare? I did a quick post on it then and it has been an active post via Google searches ever since. So which is it? Here it is:
http://healthcarebloglaw.blogspot.com/2006/10/is-it-healthcare-or-health-care.html

jonmcrawford said...

http://www.phys-astro.sonoma.edu/people/faculty/tenn/SpellingChequer.html
;)

e-Patient Dave said...

I'm going to pretend I'm a doctor in today's health policy wars:[wink]

"I don't CARE what the evidence says, you're WRONG."

Dilemna with an n?? WHAT??

Count me in with all those who never even HEARD of this [egregious mis]spelling. UGH!

(Regardless of the evidence that others have so sinned.)

Paul Levy said...

Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone -- and, you, sir don't come close to being in that category!

Anonymous said...

Well, The Health Care Blog has given its opinion; it picked up this post and the title is:

The Insurer's Dilemma

Don't know if they read all these comments first or not....

nonlocal

The Happy Hospitalist said...

Quite a dilemma you have yer.

David F. said...

Dilemna isn't listed in the Oxford English Dictionary on-line version, checked today. So it's not English English.

If anyone comes up with a dictionary that includes of American regional variants, please let us know.

James said...

Dear Paul and fellow readers,
As you might well know, the Northeast of America was settle with some the most educated people of the world in 17th century. Most were well studied in Latin, and anybody who knows Latin knows the suffixes -mni -mnus -mna -mnas as in alumni. Sorry English idiots but delemna is a latin word. Having two m's is only logical in English to maintain a short vowel sound for the proceeding e. Highly illogical we don't maintain the Latin spelling, don't you agree? As you, I was taught dilemna as being a Latin based word in Connecticut. And a fellow teacher from Delaware also agrees with this. Of course we teach the TOEFL to foreign speaking students and the Latin section maintains Latin based suffixes. So thank you for telling me we are teaching our students wrong!

gawdspella said...

I am an Australian, the other day I wrote an email, in which I described my "dilemNa" a colleague proof read it and said, you have a typo, it's dilemMa. Now, I pride myself on being a fairly good speller and I disagreed with her, sadly the dictionary disagreed with ME. Speaking with other colleagues it appears that the more hmmm senior members of work remember being taught the word with the N not the M......I am ASSuming this was taught around 40 years ago (gosh I am that old???). Mind you, I was also taught the opposite of organised was DISorganised, not UNorganised. What about others?

Anonymous said...

Just thought I'd add my $.02.
I was raised in Western Canada, and learned to spell it as dilemna in the late 60s. My daughter, taught to spell it in the 90s, spells it dilemma.

beezdotcom said...

Look - here is evidence we are NOT crazy. A Google search through old texts will show you: http://www.google.com/search?q=%22dilemna%22&tbs=bks%3A1%2Ccdr%3A1%2Ccd_min%3A1800%2Ccd_max%3A1820&lr=lang_en

Anonymous said...

I will be 27 in January 2011, and I am reasonably well-educated, an avid reader, and a product of likewise parents - I never knew it was spelled dilemma. I feel sure that I've always learned dilemna and only recently has the word in print stood out to me. I find it hard to believe that I could have persisted in this misspelling and not had this dilemma, as it were, exposed. It can't just be an isolated older generation patch, nor limited to the Northeast US. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. and spent my teenage years in Charleston, SC [not the best education, but I did attend a Magnet HS before leaving at 15]. I went to university in Britain and achieved a First Class Honours BA. This is just so strangely fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 22 year old from the Midlands in the UK, and have always been taught to spell it dilemna. I hadn't even seen it spelt with a double M until very recently, and i just assumed that was an American alternate.

Absolutely shocked to see dilemna isn't in the dictionary, i've always prided myself on being an excellent speller.
I don't think i can bring myself round to spelling it "dilemmma" though, it just seems so crude.

Captain Fossil said...

Late to the discussion, but: I am 48 years old, raised in southern California, educated at Catholic schools K-12 ... and it was ALWAYS "dilemna". Absolutely certain on this point. That's the spelling we were taught, and I was (then, at least) an awesome speller. There's no chance I've been somehow misspelling this word on my own all these years, so either ALL of my teachers got it wrong -- how likely is that?! -- or else there are two spellings available for the word. Could "dilemna" be a more British thing, somewhat akin to "sabre" vs. "saber"?

I found your web page among others only today when I learned that the spelling "dilemma" (had to type that three times to get it right -- fingers keep reaching for the "n"!) is now considered correct by most folks. Weird.

Anonymous said...

It's DILEMNA. Some idiots decided to spell it the way it's pronounced instead of correctly. The same people insist on using 'positivity' when the proper word is 'positiveness." Boy do we miss good old-fashioned schooling!

beezdotcom said...

Fellow 'MN'ers, I know it is hard to fathom, but this is not merely a case of spelling degradation over the years. A historical search comparing use of 'dilemna' and 'dilemma' shows that it isn't even close: dilemma appears to ALWAYS have been a preferred spelling.

However, there is a small but persistent use of "dilemna" in literature - Jonathan Swift used that spelling. However, this miniscule evidence of usage does not explain our absolute certainty of correctness - I half-jokingly submit this as evidence that some of us have slipped sideways from a parallel universe where our spelling IS correct.

Amanda said...

I'm 28, and I've always believed it was spelled dilemNa. It's driving me crazy now that I'm seeing differently. I want to figure out a way to research who was taught what - their ages, their schooling, where they grew up...

Anonymous said...

60 yrs old from canada great speller, always spelled it dilemna.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it's greek.
It means double proposition.
And it's spelled with two Ms.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the 1980s in the United States. I was TAUGHT it was spelled "DILEMNA" with the silent "n."

Anonymous said...

I'm 33 years old, born in raised in the United States. DILEMNA is the way I was taught to spell it. Until very recently, I would have sworn that dilemma with two m's was plain wrong.

Anonymous said...

I'm 18, raised in suburban Boston, and I spent the first seventeen years of my life convinced it was dilemna. No idea where I learned it. I would've sworn I had memories of reading it that way, too. Dilemma still looks wrong to me, I prefer not to use it.

Anonymous said...

I just graduated college in Southern Indiana and was born and raised here. I was taught "dilemna" and didn't realize it was wrong until a coworker asked me how to spell it, and I said with an "n". Suddenly we both felt it was wrong and googled it. She, too, thought it was with an "n" for a second.

Anonymous said...

"...who is somewhat younger than I" Shouldn't it be "...younger than me?"

Anonymous said...

I am 52, and toinight my 24 year old asked me how To spell dilemna. I told her with an "N" as i was taught in the Compton and Los Angeles Unified School Districts.It seemed strange to her, so she googled the word, finding it dilemma. I was surprised, confident I'd spelled the word correctly for her. I told her to look it up in an on-line dictionary. It was spelled with dilemma, but ways noted as an updated spelling. I knew I had spelled the word correctly I am notcrazy. I am glad to see there are others here defending the word spelled with an "n".

Lindsey Adele said...

Tonight, I showed my husband what I thought was a typo in our church sermon notes, insisting that dilemma was spelled dilemna. I acknowledge we "n" spellers must be incorrect, but at least we know we are not crazy!!!

Besides, why would a common misspelling be so counterintuitive? I mean, I certainly don't pronounce it with an n.

For the record, I am 24 and was educated in public schools in Washington state.

Paul Levy said...

Dear Lindsey Adele,

Thank you for keeping this string going!