Thursday, December 9, 2010

A spelling dilemna

One day at work, a co-worker asked me whether dilemma was spelled with an "mm" or an "mn."

I recall previously thinking that it was spelled with an "mn" - dilemna - but that I had subsequently been corrected.

So I tried some web searches, and most of them had the double-m spelling - dilemma.

But I did find this conversation, which began as follows:

I was taught to spell the word as 'dilemna' until the Firefox browser's spell checker said it was wrong. A quick Google search turned up the same results asking me if I wanted to spell it 'dilemma'. Am I just under-corrected in this issue? As it was not till I was 26 that I learned the truth behind my spelling dilemna.

Later in the thread, misspriss provided the following quoted material:

dilemma, cir. 1523 from Late Latin dilemma, from Greek dilemma “double proposition”, a technical term in Rhetoric, from “di” = two + “lemma” = premise [anything taken].

Much of the rest of the thread is divided between people who had never heard of the "mn" spelling, and those of us who were taught the "mn" spelling at some point. Here's an example of the latter, from Luftmarque:

I just read a bunch of online discussions of this phenomenon, and people reported being taught dilemna in the US, Canada, and Great Britain from the fifties through the eighties. There appears to be a similar situation in French between dilemme and dilemne. The weird thing to me is how all of this mis-education could have happened in so many classes without one contrarian student being doubtful enough to look up the spelling in a dictionary. As far as I know, no one has ever been able to track the problem down to a misprint in a textbook, and there seems to be no dictionary anywhere any time that has listed dilemna.

I didn't read the entire conversation (it goes on for 11 pages), but this is very interesting. The conversation cited above was hosted by The Free Dictionary. A benefit of an online dictionary is that you can talk about stuff - something that probably angers so-called language purists, but is in fact necessary when a language is spoken over several different continents and has been spoken for several centuries, and will presumably be spoken for several centuries to come.

Also see One of Us, BrightHaven Days, and King Marketing. Google Fight records a 10:1 preference for the double-m spelling, but there's still a significant number of us "mn" folks. (H/T Northern Planets.)

And after due consideration of all of the facts that were presented...I blame the Commie Soviets for the confusion.
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