David Kimball, an amateur spelling enthusiast in California, has trolled
the Internet and found "millennium" spelled wrong at least a third of the
time, up there with the greats: minuscule, supersede, occurrence,
accommodate, embarrass, and perseverance.
A glance at the World Wide Web produces 41,814 "millenniums" and 31,829
"milleniums." Many involve debates about "Millennium" the television show
and the space ship Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars." The TV show and the
movie spell it right. The fans are split: Millennium Falcon turns up on the
Web 19,981 times, Millenium Falcon 17,997.
The spell-checker evidently isn't a most-visited button. Aware of that,
Britain's Millennium Records has a special one-n Web site for "all you
tossers who can't spell `millennium.'" Those dumbbells (polite translation)
can switch to the two-n site with one click. The purpose is to communicate,
the same purpose printers had when they first set English into wood, then
lead -- and then stone.
"Our modern printers are the people putting up Web sites," says David
Yerkes, an English professor who thinks about such things at Columbia
University. "They don't want spelling to be a barrier. They want people to
get in touch."
So why not have "millennium" both ways? Better yet, why not go the distance
-- to "milenium"? Timothy Travis wants to. A retired oil worker, he filled
his nights in the field jotting notes on spelling, and has put them into a
book called, "4000, The Fifth Milenium: Six Revolooshunairy Iedeeas."
"Why shouldn't we spell things the way they sound?" asks Mr. Travis.
Answer: The etymologists won't let us.
"Millennium" has been spelled "millennium" for over a millennium. It links
the Latin mille (thousand) and annus (year). ("Centenary" and "millenarian"
have a different root.) When annus bonds with other words, the a becomes an
e. "Those are the rules in Latin," says Tom McArthur, who edits the Oxford
Companion to the English Language. "In Latin, the rules are inflexible."
And in English, Latin's rules pretty much rule.