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A nice dilemma we have here...


By Miranda

I heard about this one recently and I just couldn't believe it. Apparently there are squillions of people who think that the word 'dilemma' is spelt 'dilemna' and, further, that they were taught this spelling at school and are sincerely shocked to find that the form is incorrect.

The dictionaries reveal no support at all for the 'dilemna' spelling. And that's no support in any version of English spelling - the North American dictionaries offer as few options as the English ones. There isn't even any history of alternative spellings - the word came in from ancient Greek and has remained, unchanged, ever since. Yet people from all around the world are quite sure that 'dilemna' was the correct version at their school or, in some cases, schools.

Even more weird is that it seems to run across the generations - spellers both old and young have been appalled at a lifetime of inadvertent error.

This is fascinating.

Apart from the simple fact that so many people, all of whom had access to dictionaries, and were, as they remember, formally schooled into this practice, managed to fix the 'dilemna' version into their brain, I'm intrigued as to how such a meme developed. Was there a misprint in a widely distributed school text or, perhaps, in an edition of that book even more widely distributed than education texts, the Bible.

Or is the whole thing an internet chimera? It would be an easy enough hare to start. A blog here, a few posts well larded with keywords there, and the whole thing's off and running.

So please help me here - have any of you word wizards ever heard of this dilemma/dilemna quandary? And, even more importantly, can you locate its source?


52 Responses to

A nice dilemma we have here...

canux1 said:
October 05, 2010 at 10:24 AM

Schooled in the USA in the 50's and 60's, I definitely remember being taught "dilemna." Actually, until now, I thought it was a word with dual acceptable spellings. I must admit that at times I have difficulty with British/Aussie/Canadian spelling. What do ya'all have against the letter "Z?" (And I mean zee, not zed.) Cheers!

October 05, 2010 at 4:02 PM

Canux1, according to my mother's old 1945, Webster's New Standard Dictionary, printed in Chicago, there is "dilemma" and no alternative.

mommyscat said:
October 05, 2010 at 4:45 PM

I was amused to read all the different comments on mis-spelled and mis-pronounced words and was surprised that my pet peeve word hasn't until this posting been cited. Libary instead of library.

October 05, 2010 at 6:36 PM

My pet peeve is people saying 'pavalova' instead of 'pavlova'.

akdingle said:
October 05, 2010 at 9:56 PM

My biggest pet peeve (as there are many being a singing teacher) is "pacific" instead of specific. Do they not listen when other people speak?

cheekygs said:
October 05, 2010 at 11:34 PM

It has only ever been 'dilemma' for me but I still have a problem with Australians saying 'heightth' instead of height (should be pronounced as in kite) and 'filum' instead of film. I know educated, professional people who use these words as part of their everyday language in education.

apozzi said:
October 06, 2010 at 2:53 AM

My pet peeve is hearing people use 'they' or 'them' as a singular pronoun. I understand the dilemma here. Our language doesn't have a gender neutral third person singular pronoun for a person and he/she is awkward. So we seem to be adopting them/they as a solution. But my nun-trained grammar sense cringes whenever I hear it.

kragzy said:
October 06, 2010 at 11:02 AM

Goodness! I've been away for just a few days and a flood of pet-peeves has drenched Miranda's blog! Well far be it from cranky Kragzy to let the side down... On spelling, the difference between practice and practise seems to becoming rapidly lost (ice is a noun; is is a verb) and in the spoken word, recently I have heard people say 'preform' when they mean 'perform'. How weird is that? Self-confession: I am never confident enough to write 'occasion' without reverting to the the spell checker (the English - Australian version available in MS Word).

dj1 said:
October 06, 2010 at 1:39 PM

"Fillum" always gets me.

rhve said:
October 06, 2010 at 3:10 PM

apozzi, you're right about they and them. in the past we would have used he and him as gender neutral terms (only the feminine was specific) but in these times of political correctness and "inclusive language" we've lost that and had to come up with all sorts of awkward replacements.

ANT262 said:
October 06, 2010 at 3:29 PM

I've never known it as anything but dilemma, however, the brain is an amazing thing. Surely you have all seem the little paragraph going around the email circles a few years back showing how the human brain only needs the first and last characters in the correct position in a word to be able to recognise it! The middle letters can be jumbled about any which way - it doesn't matter. It's soemtnhig evyrenoe suohld try.

LesleyB said:
October 07, 2010 at 3:36 PM

Never had the "dilemma" of spelling "dilemma" wrong! Always known how to spell it. Maybe it's because Kiwi's speak proper english!! LOL

grantdood said:
October 08, 2010 at 10:55 PM

LesleyB says Kiwi's speak proper english? Imagine the surprise when the party host in Auckland said he spent all morning sanding his dck.

elmo7 said:
October 10, 2010 at 5:02 PM

hehe grant....only a kiwi would do that!!!!

October 11, 2010 at 9:39 AM

I've always known how to spell dilemma - and can spell most things if I can write them down, but my pet peeve is people who say yous instead of you - sounds like ewes to me and I definitely don't want to be a sheep

luddite said:
October 27, 2010 at 9:37 AM

Good to see Kragzy didn't let the side down while I was off trying to kill myself & Small Squaw Voice of Thunder on a quad bike in W.A., and Tennotrumps, being a sheep isn't all that bad, providing you're of the prime breeding/shearing variety rather than the lamb chop type.

mattjn said:
October 27, 2010 at 8:28 PM

Love Kiwi speak like: Ups, I slupped en sem chup dup, trupped and rupped me nutted wundcheater. They often "hev a delumma when trying to fugga out how to spull delumma, us et with a em or en en?"

October 28, 2010 at 12:38 PM

Oh I agree, mattjn! I love the sound of Kiwi speak. My dry-cleaning comes to the musical total of "sux-fufty". I'll be disappointed when they put the price up:-)

crag43 said:
October 31, 2010 at 8:25 AM

I blame Shakespeare...

December 13, 2010 at 9:12 PM

I was always taught "dilemma". My biggest problem was ensuring that my children pronounced "h" correctly. It is supposed to be pronounced "aitch" but at school these days they teach the children "Haitch"! I have no idea why but I really hate it!

kragzy said:
December 14, 2010 at 9:29 AM

When I was in primary school (way back in the dark ages), the kids from public schools said 'aitch', and 'sez' for 'says', whereas the kids from Catholic schools said 'haitch' and 'saize'. I have no idea what practice is these days - do they even teach children pronunciation anymore?

Oldgold said:
December 14, 2010 at 4:33 PM

Can you imagine the dilemma (1940's schooling so no"n") I had a few years back when managing a medical practice. One receptionist would answer the phone with "Medical Senner"(instead of Medical Centre) and the other would say things like "I fink youse should arks him yself." When I tried to correct them I was accused of harassment!