Are you one of possibly millions* worldwide that have always spelled the word with an 'n' as DilemNa and have been shocked to find that you are absolutely and categorically 'wrong' because the word has apparently always been spelled with a double 'm' as 'Dilemma'....? (*A search count check was done on Google a while back and it reported 3 million 'DileMMa' searches and 300,000 DilemNa searches, ie 1 in 10. With an English as 1st language population of 375 million worldwide it might mean that 37 million spell it with an N...)
It is a truly weird discovery for all us DilemNa spellers and although it might seem an over the top thing to say, I find that many report the discovery as making them feel a bit shaken. They've grown up knowing that it is spelled with an 'n' and to see it written with 2 m's just looks absolutely wrong!
Usually the discovery is quite by chance, for example a spellchecker 'correcting' you. So firstly you check the internet fully expecting to find the correct N spelling... No? Hmmm, that's a bit strange... so then you start thinking that perhaps it's a fairly recent Americanised version of the English and so you check an Oxford English Dictionary... No? Hmmm, that's a bit strange, it's still saying 2 Ms. Ok, so let's get an old dictionary from the 50s/60s/70s and that will surely show the correct N spelling?!
OMG, no it doesn't..... Well, it turns out the word has never ever been spelled with an N at any point in history!
Not only that, but there's never ever been a dictionary that even offers the possibility of an N spelling!
For us N spellers, that truly is quite disconcerting.
As a competitive young man I always tried to be top of the class in spelling and I remember clearly that words would often be included which were designed to catch you out. Words like hymn, psalm, psychic, school, were all used because they were spelled differently from how they sounded and I distinctly remember Dilemna catching many out with its silent N.
In fact it seems that one common childhood memory from many of us, including myself, is distinctly remembering being taught that the best way to memorise the correct spelling was to say it to yourself as 'Di' 'Lem' 'Na'. (Which may partly be the reason why we are so 'shaken' by the discovery.)
As curious and alert children, with a dictionary constantly beside us and referred to as often as we all use the internet nowadays, it's odd to think that not one of us millions of Dilemna spellers have ever once gone, 'Excuse me teacher, that's not what it says here?'
OK, so what is the possible explanation for this mystery? Research shows this error spreads across many English speaking countries throughout the world but also very interestingly it spans many generations from 19 year olds to 89 year olds.
Logic would suggest that the whole thing may have been caused by a publishing error in a school text book. It's easy to imagine that the particular text book in question may have been used worldwide. However the vast age variation of N spellers would seem to put that suggestion into question but there's also another fundamental flaw in that theory. These text books were used by well-educated teachers of various ages, so is it reasonable to assume that they too would have propagated this error without one of them saying, hang on a minute that's not right? This seems unlikely. As all of this seems to have happened in living memory you'd think that a teacher somewhere would say oh yes, I remember this, I know what happened. But no, no one knows and no one can find any text book with the Dilemna spelling. Many retired teachers, doctors, lawyers report that they have always spelled it with an N and have never been aware of seeing it spelled with 2 Ms.
Philogists (language and historic written text experts) have recently put forward the sensible theory that this is just a mistake which has somehow gone unnoticed for several hundred years, probably because the written 'mn' and 'mm' look very similar at a quick glance and our brains just gloss over the error. Well that does seem a very plausible explanation at first, but appears quite weak when you start to think about it. For one thing the very common thread running through many discussion forums (including our comments section below) is that when Dilemna spellers see the word 'Dilemma' to them it instantly looks crass and utterly 'wrong'.
Has It Always Been 'Dilemma'?
Well unfortunately for us Dilemna folk the 'Dilemma' supporters have a very strong case and can point to the word itself originating from the Greek word 'lemma' which means 'propositions' or 'alternatives' and the 'di' means 2.
That's a cut and dried argument for spelling it with 2 m's of course but then again it actually heightens the mystery. It would make perfect sense if the true spelling was Dilemna and a simple error then turned it into 'Dilemma' because that's the way it sounds (which is the cause of most spelling errors), but for it to go the other way and insert a more complex silent 'n' for no reason at all makes absolutely no sense!! Nobody makes the spelling mistake of changing swimmer to swimner, or summer to sumner.
The mystery goes on.... I've came across a couple of forums where it's been suggested that the 'n' spelling might have originated from the French word 'Dilemne'... sounds very plausible except... yes you guessed it, the French word is actually 'Dilemme'... It appears that many French people are also now reporting having mistakenly been taught a silent 'n' spelling... weird?
Is there any other explanation?
Well here's an unusual theory to give you pause for thought: Alternate universe enthusiast Marden Paul of Toronto actually put forward a theory several years ago that Dilemna people had all somehow crossed over into this parallel 'Dilemma' spelling universe and that's why they are staggered to discover that not only are they wrong but there's also no trace of an N spelling anywhere in any dictionary in the history of their new universe!
Daft? Well, the funny thing is, it seems that all us Dilemna spellers have absolutely no recollection of ever seeing it spelled as 'Dilemma' (and vice-versa).... spooky!?
Well that's it folks, make your own mind up as to which spelling is best and vote or add your own comments below. Personally I think 'Dilemma' just looks plain horrible and always will. So there's no dilemna for me at all as to which is the correct spelling - it will always be the much more classy version, DILEMNA!
Beam me up Scotty.
The Dilemna dilemma gets a mention on Jonathan Goldsteins Wiretap Radio Show - www.cbc.ca/wiretap
READERS POLL WHICH IS BEST?
Once you've voted, scroll back down again to see the results.
Thanks for visiting the site! Please leave a comment below and if you don't mind just a quick mention of where/when you were educated - let's see if any pattern emerges! For me it was Scotland in the 1960/1970s. Thanks!