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Q From Andrew Lewis, UK; a similar question came from Jim Black in the US.: My daughter, who lives in the Cayman Islands and works in the media, asked me the other day whether dilemma is ever spelt dilemna. Apparently her boss insisted that it was and my daughter said that she had a residual memory of having been taught that at school. Good grief, what schools did I send her to? Do you have any views or comments on this?

A This is very strange. A search in mailing lists showed that many other people also report they had been taught that spelling, though always told that it was pronounced as though with a double M. The error has been reported both in the US and in the UK.

There is no doubt about the correct spelling: the word is Greek, from di-, twice, plus lemma, a premise. It has always been spelled that way, at least according to the dictionaries that I’ve consulted, ancient and modern (it dates from the sixteenth century as a term in rhetoric). Though the Oxford English Dictionary is usually punctilious in recording variant forms, it doesn’t note any alternative spellings other than the French dilemme, which was sometimes used early in its English history.

The spelling is certainly rife today. It’s easy to find thousands of examples by searching newspaper and book archives. Of these, a large number, certainly a significant majority, are misprints or simple errors. The reason for it seems to be a mental confusion with other words in English that are spelled with mn but said as mm, including autumn, hymn, condemn, solemn and column. It’s all too easy to miss as a typographical error because mm and mn look so similar on the printed page. This visual confusion could be part of the reason why so many people, having learned the wrong spelling, fail to correct themselves when they notice the properly-spelled form.

A search of historical literature shows that in earlier times it was quite common and turned up in works by well-known authors. These are a few eighteenth-century examples:

In this Dilemna, as I was very pensive, I stept into the Cabin, and sat me down.

Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, 1719.

The nation saw themselves reduced to a ridiculous dilemna upon their testimony.

The History of England, by Oliver Goldsmith, Vol 3, 1771.

There was a famous ancient Instance of this Case, wherein a Dilemna was retorted.

Logick, by Isaac Watts, 1772.

It even appears in a list of difficult three-syllable words in The Civil Service Spelling Book, by R Johnson, published in London in 1868. If this is a mistake left uncorrected at the proofing stage, it’s a particularly unfortunate one.

Modern reprints of old works usually “correct” the spelling, their proofreaders presumably taking it to be a printer’s error. However, there are so many old examples that it is difficult to write them off as a mass word blindness among printers and proofreaders.

It’s not just in English that the problem is known. In French it sometimes appears as dilemne instead of dilemme. Native French speakers have reported that 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.

I’ve not found any example of a spelling book or primer that has the dilemna version. Anyone who taught that form must have been perpetuating what they had learned without reference to any book. In view of the very large number of historical examples, it makes me wonder if the variant spelling has persisted in the language for many generations, unnoticed by dictionary makers or repeatedly dismissed as a simple error.

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Page created 31 Jul 2010