The dilemma over dilemma

I have no idea why this is, but I have thought for my whole life that the word dilemma had a silent n in it and was spelled dilemna. So when I was editing a story last night and saw it spelled the correct way, I pulled out my dictionary to check, and of course, discovered that I was mistaken about the n. Though there's no dispute over its spelling, there is dispute over how the word dilemma should be used.

Here are the definitions from Merriam-Webster Online:

  • 1. an argument presenting two or more equally conclusive alternatives against an opponent
  • 2a. a usually undesirable or unpleasant choice
  • 2b. a situation involving such a choice
  • 3a. a problem involving a difficult choice
  • 3b. a difficult or persistent problem

The American Heritage Dictionary labels the senses other than the first as a "usage problem" because of the word's etymology: "Late Latin, from Late Greek dilēmmat-, dilēmma, probably back-formation from Greek dilēmmatos involving two assumptions, from di-, meaning two, + lēmmat-, lēmma, meaning assumption," from M-W Online.

AHD says in a usage note:

In its main sense dilemma refers to a situation in which a choice must be made between alternative courses of action or argument. Although citational evidence attests to widespread use of the term meaning simply “a problem” or “a predicament” and involving no issue of choice, 74 percent of the Usage Panel rejects the sentence Juvenile drug abuse is the great dilemma of the 1980s. It is sometimes claimed that because the di– in dilemma comes from a Greek prefix meaning “two,” the word should be used only when exactly two choices are involved. Nevertheless, 64 percent of the Usage Panel accepts its use for choices among three or more options.

How nice of the usage panel.

Garner's Modern American Usage agrees: "This word should not be used by slipshod extension for plight or predicament."

M-W Online disagrees in its own usage note:

Although some commentators insist that dilemma be restricted to instances in which the alternatives to be chosen are equally unsatisfactory, their concern is misplaced; the unsatisfactoriness of the options is usually a matter of how the author presents them. What is distressing or painful about a dilemma is having to make a choice one does not want to make. The use of such adjectives as terrible, painful, and irreconcilable suggests that dilemma is losing some of its unpleasant force. There also seems to be a tendency especially in sense 3b toward applying the word to less weighty problems <solved their goaltending dilemma>

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage agrees with M-W Online in a nearly two-page entry that traces the word's evolution and later objections against that evolution by usage giant H.W. Fowler. The M-W Usage entry concludes:

Dilemma, in the senses extended from the original application to argument, has never been as restricted in meaning as Fowler and his his successors have wished it to become. Its further extension to instances in which no alternatives are expressed or implied had become the prevailing use int he 20th century, even though disapproved of by Fowler and two leading usage panels. Your use of the word in the sense of problem or predicament should not be a concern -- even E.B. White used it that way.

I tend to agree with the more permissive stance on dilemma, especially if it has become the predominant usage as M-W says. You can object to the evolution of something all you want, but that won't change the fact that it's evolved.