Dilemma vs dilemna

14 Feb
Ron Howard during filming of Angles and Demons...

Image via Wikipedia

The one radio programme I religiously listen to is Radio Five’s Mark
Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews
on a Friday afternoon.

If I can’t listen live, look forward to the chance to walk the dog by
myself so I can plug in my headphones and catch up with the podcasts
uninterrupted.  I often find myself laughing out loud as I walk along!

Both Mark and Simon are fond of commenting on language and grammar in
particular.  Mark especially loves interrupting the readers’ emails, read aloud by Simon, to correct the grammar.  Mark’s special bugbear seems to be
sentences that end with prepositions – but the delightful irony is that
Mark then goes on to give film reviews, and promptly ends a number of
sentences with prepositions, breaking all the grammar rules for which he’s
just chastised listeners (or as Mark might say during a review, which he’s
just chastised listeners for!).

Recently, Mark and Simon had to review the Ron Howard film ‘The Dilemma’.
It may have been Simon who said during the programme – “When did the
spelling change?”

My ears instantly pricked up.  Had I been spelling dilemma wrong for all
these years?  I hadn’t ever seen an alternative spelling to D-I-L-E-M-M-A,
so what were they talking about?

It turned out that both Mark and Simon were under the apprehension that
dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A.  And a number of listeners started to
write in as well to confirm the view that dilemma was indeed spelled with
an ‘mn’ at the end, in line with words like ‘solemn’.

I was listening live and frantically opened the Oxford English Dictionary
online to find out what was going on.  To my relief, the OED offered no
entries under ‘dilemna’.

So where had this ‘mn’ version come from?  If you google it, you find a
whole host of entries, many around the confusion between the ‘-mma’ and
‘mna’ endings.  It seems like the ‘mna’ ending was widely taught in many
schools in the UK, US and Canada – and potentially millions of students
have learned a different spelling.

One website suggests the revised spelling is an example of hypercorrection,
which is when people make a change erroneously as they believe the original
is wrong and needs to be corrected.  You see hypercorrection a lot in the
use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ – people tend to hypercorrect and overuse ‘I’ (between
him and I) as they think ‘me’ is the wrong usage.

With dilemNa, it’s thought teachers changed the spelling to bring it in
line with words like ‘column’, ‘solemn’ and ‘condemn’.   As a side note,
one blog post I read suggested the same hypercorrection had happened in
French with ‘dilemme’ and ‘dilemne’.

But both the original Greek and the later Latin version offer a double ‘m’
spelling.  The fabulous One Look (a website that searches all online
dictionaries) offers four entries for dilemNa – each of which describes the
word as a common misspelling.

So the good news for Ron Howard is that he doesn’t have to change any of
his film’s marketing (I hear the movie’s rubbish anyway) – and Mark and
Simon seem to have resigned themselves to defeat on this one.


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