For almost 400 years, the Académie Française has tried to guard the gates of French against foreign invaders.
For three centuries of its own, the Royal Academy of Spanish has loomed over a language spoken by millions across two continents.
But English, a language that has ransacked German, Dutch, Latin, Greek and many other tongues for parts and pieces, has always had limited oversight at best. It took a centuries-long process — involving the printing press, trade patterns and a rising middle class — to mostly standardize spellings by the late 1700s.
By the time the United States had thrown off Britain’s yoke and was trying to put together a national identity in the 1800s, spelling struck some Americans as a natural way to distinguish one culture from the other. In the 1820s and ’30s, Americans started developing a distinct version of English — in part based on spelling — said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”
“That’s primarily why the spelling bee was an American institution,” she said.
Noah Webster, a lexicographer and friend of Benjamin Franklin’s, played a central role in turning American English away from British English spellings. “There was a sense that we needed to create our own language that would celebrate our own American-ness,” Ms. Stamper said. “For Noah Webster, that took the form of mostly spelling changes.”
To make English easier to teach, Webster wanted spelling to be phonetic, so he often adopted spelling variations that had closer ties to a word’s originating language. He codified the E-R ending of words like “center,” the Z versions of words like “sympathize” and the U-less spelling of words like “color” and “honor.”
“He also suggested changes in spelling that were phonetic but bananas,” Ms. Stamper said. “He really wanted ‘women’ spelled W-I-M-M-I-N because he thought it would be easier to say. ‘Soup’ he wanted S-O-O-P.”
Some of his changes — mostly the more intuitive ones — took off, while others, like “dawter” and “porpess,” fell by the wayside. And what cemented many of the changes was not his dictionary of 1828 but a popular abridgment he published the next year and, in an early American tradition, the copycats that followed.
Webster, a former schoolteacher, also believed strongly in the importance of education. His work contributed to making spelling, along with reading and arithmetic, a central pillar of American education in the 19th century.
His priority was reforming and improving education. But as a side effect, “Webster thought if we make the language phonetic, then everyone across the language will sound the same,” Ms. Stamper said. “He thought that this would unify the nation.”
Had he gotten his way and somehow transformed English into a phonetic language, spelling bees might never have become a success. “Bees don’t work in German or French because they’re phonetic languages,” Ms. Stamper said.
“None of the top kids are working less than two or three hours a day,” said Linda Tarrant, president of Hexco, a Texas-based company that coaches spelling bee contestants. “Probably more on weekends.”
And that’s when there is no tournament coming up.
For elite spellers — those spellers who return year after year to the competition — training is akin to a part-time job, said Shourav Dasari, 18, a former finalist.
“It just gotten a lot more competitive, even more than in the early 2010s,” he said. “It’s just a year round commitment.”
His sister, Shobha Dasari, 20, a three-time semifinalist in the national spelling bee, said the training goes well beyond rote memorization.
“The other aspect that people overlook is that preparing for spelling bees means understanding the mechanics of how language works,” she said. “Memorizing roots and patterns is super important to be a good speller.”
During the long hours, spellers study medical terms, Japanese words and Greek, Latin, Spanish and even Yiddish roots to master the building blocks of the words they may be called upon to spell, said Ms. Tarrant.
That kind of work often requires help — from a professional coach, who may charge as much as $200 an hour, or from a parent who has the flexibility and patience to dedicate long hours to their children’s mastery of words like “winceyette,” “meerschaum” and “smaragdine.”
Ms. Dasari, who along with her brother runs a paid spelling bee prep service called SpellPundit, said there are now enough online programs that older spellers could theoretically train alone and be competitive.
“I think coaching is slightly overrated,” said her brother, Mr. Dasari. “I think spellers can figure it out for themselves.”
However they train, there is one characteristic all elite spellers must have: a love of words, said Ms. Tarrant.
“You can’t take a kid who is not interested in words and turn him into a champion,” she said. “Part of it is a gift.”
By most accounts, the puzzle community is a generous and friendly one — until a word that some consider “commonly known” is left off the list of words for a New York Times Spelling Bee.
When the hivemind feels a word is wrongly snubbed, it directs its mock outrage at Sam Ezersky, the associate puzzles editor who works on the game.
“It has to be frustrating to discover something you know is a word — one you might even use regularly — only to see it nullified by the game,” he said. “It’s all a balance, though. There’s only one master list for everyone. And one person’s expansive vocabulary or specialized knowledge is another’s obscurity or esoterica. So the playing field must be kept level somehow, and my guiding question these days is, ‘What feels fair for our audience?’”
Mr. Ezersky’s first step each day is to make sure that the pangram or pangrams are not head scratchers. They should be words that are instantly familiar.
The next step is ruling out the obvious no-nos. “I start with the following,” he said:
No proper nouns or capitalized terms, unless they have a reason for the lowercase context.
No vulgarity or vulgar slang.
No clear variants or British variants on American English words.
Nothing with hyphens or contractions, or anything that’s more regularly written as more than one word.
Nothing so informal that players might say, ‘That’s not really a word … ’
“We really do want solvers to find as many words in the complete list as possible,” he said. “If there’s a lot of esoterica in the list, what’s the point? Had the computer list for the puzzle (O) A D G N R U remained unedited, a part of the solution would have included words like OGDOAD, ONGAONGA, ORAD, ORGANON and OURANG.”
He continued: “Would you have been able to find them all? Computers alone can only do so much number-crunching to gauge a word’s familiarity.”
Mr. Ezersky’s reference material includes the Merriam-Webster and New Oxford American dictionaries, the Scrabble databases and Google’s News tab, which allows him to check if a word has made regular appearances in news articles.
“If there is anything I don’t recognize, I look it up to confirm that it isn’t just my own blind spot,” he said. “But there are also what I call the ‘Scrabble words’ like PENK, TEIL and NIRL that I just know most players will not be familiar with and won’t try in the game. Anything that feels like a no-go is removed from the list.”
“Keeping all this in mind, I try to make a final call that feels as fair as possible,” he added. “I used to think that the phrase ‘commonly known’ was a good gauge, but I simply can’t dictate to all solvers what is and isn’t common. But isn’t that part of the fun of Spelling Bee, too? Who doesn’t love a game that gives them the chance to feel smart — smarter than its editor, even — as well as talk all about it with others?”
Spelling bees have always served as stages for childhood triumphs and traumas, featuring classroom nemeses, underdog victories and humiliating stumbles. These readers recalled their own middle-school dramas.
Steven Daugherty, 69, from Carrollton, Ga.:
I finished second in a fifth-grade spelling bee. A girl I barely knew and I went literally for hours spelling words, the last two standing. The principal scheduled the finals for the next day. The entire school and tons of parents attended. I lost on the first word, carburetor. My father told me he was devastated, not only that his son was defeated by a girl, but on such a “manly” word. A psychic trauma I remember six decades later.
Monica Greenwood, 52, from East Northport, N.Y.:
It was 1981. I was in the school sixth-grade spelling bee, after being a regular winner in the weekly classroom bee for all of elementary school. There were three of us left on the stage, the usual suspects. Two boys and me, a girl. I lost to my archrival, Eric Mirlis, on the word “circuit.” And my father was an electrical engineer. To this day, I see that word and remain dubious about that second “i.”
Robert Miller, 65, from Libertyville, Illinois:
I was the elementary school champ two years in a row. No one could touch me in sixth grade. First round of regional competition — “ossification.” Didn’t get it (osiphication). I was OK with that. What miffed me was someone in a later round got “pretzel.” C’mon.
J. Alan Boyd, 41, from Fort Collins, Colo.:
My older sister misspelled “ostentatious” as a seventh grader at the Barton County, Kansas bee in 1990. Our dad’s name is Austin. He couldn’t have been prouder.
The words weren’t always this hard.
In the early decades of the National Spelling Bee’s run, students won by correctly spelling words familiar from newspaper articles, advertisements and everyday speech. Words like luxuriance, initials and knack.
In the last decade, the words have veered into the specialist realms of medicine, Greek drama and German folk art.
Here’s a sampling of winning words, with definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster and sentences from the New York Times archive, when possible. (Example sentences that do not end with a publication date are inventions.)
1925 gladiolus: any of a genus of perennial plants of the iris family with erect sword-shaped leaves and spikes of brilliantly colored irregular flowers. “Ten years of selecting and cross-fertilizing, and a million seedlings to develop the superb California gladiolus from a weak-stemmed and scrawny flower, and the whole process delayed by a stray gopher.” — Aug. 30, 1925
1930 fracas: a noisy quarrel. “At their headquarters, after the fracas, Communists said they had three films of snapshots taken on the ground and from upper floors of the building which will show that the alleged brutality was manifested yesterday.” — May 19, 1929
1935 intelligible: capable of being understood. “As a general thing they can give no intelligible explanation of their conduct, or tell what they are in arms against the Government for.” — Jan. 28, 1863
1940 therapy: medical treatment of impairment, injury, disease, or disorder. “Hypnotic Therapy Defended: Hypnosis, which has fallen into disfavor as a therapeutic technique, was defended as an experimental procedure by Dr. Cobb.” — Dec. 29, 1938
1946 semaphore: an apparatus for visual signaling; a system of visual signaling by two flags. “A few days ago some American and British officers stepped ashore on Ponza to inspect its obsolete submarine cable and its dust-covered semaphore station.” — Jan. 16, 1944
1949 dulcimer: a stringed instrument of trapezoidal shape played with light hammers held in the hands. “He plans to write a concerto for orchestra and santur, or santir, a Persian musical instrument similar to the dulcimer.” — Nov. 22, 1942
1955 crustaceology: carcinology; a branch of zoology concerned with the crustacea. “The marine biologist, for all her study of crustaceology, was awed at seeing hundreds of spider crabs, many with legs 10 feet long, clambering toward the aquarium doors.”
1970 croissant: a flaky, rich crescent-shaped roll. “The fast food croissant, brioche and puff pastries are by and large soggy, tasteless impostors of revered French pastries, yet the apparent popularity here attests to the seemingly insatiable world appetite for fast food.” — Aug. 27, 1980
1980 elucubrate: to work out or express by studious effort. “Despite decades as a fan, he could not, to his own or anyone else’s satisfaction, elucubrate his reasons for such devotion to Philadelphia teams.”
1985 milieu: the physical or social setting in which something occurs. “The bottom line of Ken Auletta’s article is clear: Even a company with deep roots and the long genteel tradition of Lehman Brothers succumbs in today’s corporate milieu, in which rapacious leadership votes itself huge bonuses and stock options while company profits are plunging.” — March 31, 1985
1990 fibranne: a fabric made of spun-rayon yarn. “Wool is mixed with fibranne, a synthetic fiber, as well as with cotton to give a crunchy texture to a beige suit that is vaguely Norfolk in derivation.” — Sept. 9, 1964
1995 xanthosis: yellow discoloration of the skin from abnormal causes. “The movie’s protagonists realized their friend might be in trouble when they saw his lemon-colored xanthosis, then by catching a graveyard smell, then by hearing about his insatiable appetite for brains.”
2004 autochthonous: indigenous, native. “Autochthonous forefathers of the present-day Finns are presumed to have appeared about the time Jesus was born, those of Finno-Ugrian origin perhaps in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains having migrated earlier to the lower Baltic seacoast.” — Oct. 16, 1983
2012 guetapens: an ambush, snare. “Admiral Ackbar, observing too late that the Rebel Alliance was in the deadly guetapens set by the Empire, shouted the obvious: ‘It’s a trap!’”
2014 stichomythia: dialogue especially of altercation or dispute delivered by two actors in alternating lines. “The rapid-fire one-line-exchanges (stichomythia) between characters, so stilted in most translations, blaze here with intense hostility, especially in the deadly verbal duel of Creon with his son Haemon.” — Dec. 5, 2004
2015 scherenschnitte: the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. “Call ahead to take part in special weekend workshops in Pennsylvania German crafts of scherenschnitte (paper cutting), quilling (coiled paper art), decorative egg scratching and open-hearth cooking.” — July 2, 2006
2018 koinonia: the Christian fellowship or body of believers; intimate spiritual communion and participative sharing in a common religious commitment and spiritual community. “From its founding in 1942 as a non‐denominational commune devoted to the teachings of Jesus, Koinonia, which means fellowship in Greek — aroused hostility because it welcomed all races and opposed all wars.” — May 27, 1972
Bees the event, on the other hand, only started to sprout up in the last few centuries — mostly on American soil.
In its meaning of people getting together for a community activity, “bee” started to appear only in the mid-to-late 1700s, said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”
Neighbors in the 18th and 19th centuries would hold an “apple bee” to pick and press apples for cider, for instance, or a “raising bee” to build a barn, or a “quilting bee” for quilting. Ms. Stamper said there was also evidence for the phrase “lynching bee.”
“It did originate in more rural parts of America, mostly,” she said. “The word itself eventually referred to any kind of meaning or gathering.”
She added that the word “appeared in tons of usages before it appeared as ‘spelling bee.’” That occasion came in 1874, courtesy The Boston Globe, in a context that made it clear the phrase was long familiar to readers.
Spelling bees had started early in the 1800s, mostly as an American phenomenon, and were usually just called contests or matches.
“Spelling was such a big deal in America because, starting really in the 1820s, 1830s, we started developing American English as distinct from British English — and that is mostly spelling-based,” Ms. Stamper said.
As for the origin of “bee” the meeting? Etymologists disagree. Some argue that it’s an allusion to the bustling social nature of bees. Others say it descends from a Middle English dialect word, “bene,” referring to help that’s given.
“It’s a weird word,” Ms. Stamper said.
During her time competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee competitions, Simone Kaplan became a fan favorite, not just for her spelling prowess but also for her bee-themed attire: a dress bedecked with bees, accessories with bees, a lot of yellow.
“What a confident young lady,” the announcer said at the start of the 2019 finals. “We watched her grow up in this competition. The bee outfits speak for themselves.”
Simone finished in ninth place after misspelling tettigoniid, a long-horned grasshopper, in the 15th round. When she was eliminated, there were audible gasps in the gallery. (The eight contestants remaining wound up tying as co-champions.)
She tied for 10th place in 2018 and 189th place in 2017.
Now 15, Simone said she still used the lessons gained from the bee, and maintained her love of words.
“I learned a lot of study skills,” she said. “A lot of perseverance because I had to sit and study words for so long,” she said recalling typical days that started at 5 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m.
Simone also said she learned a lot of critical thinking skills by asking for the roots of words to understand their language patterns.
“I continue to use the study skills that I learned, to continue to study more when I don’t feel like it,” said Simone, who has a 5.28 grade point average and will be a high school sophomore in Southwest Ranches, Fla.
She added that she encounters a lot of Latin and Greek root words in her studies, particularly biology, an interest of hers.
After spending hours training, Simone was disappointed that she was not able to compete again in a 2020 National Spelling Bee, which was canceled because of the pandemic. But her bee fame has followed her and kept her busy.
Via Zoom, she organized and hosted a spelling bee for students at the a primary school in London. She was a contributor, bell judge and pronouncer in the SpellPundit National Spelling Bee competition in April. And she has tutored students.
“Spelling has been a good platform for her,’’ her mother, Alana Kaplan, said. “She is so savvy with Greek and Latin words.”
“It’s something I feel that I am good at and it gives me confidence,’’ Simone said of spelling. “The words are about everything, music, history, science. It is real interesting to learn where these words come from.”
Of the 30 students who entered the semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee last week, 19 heard the sound that spellers dread: the ding of a bell that signals an error, somewhere, and elimination from the competition.
During the semifinals, the words became noticeably tougher, and a round of multiple-choice questions about word meanings knocked out several competitors in quick succession. Spellers called in by video from their homes — a dog barked behind one student and another yelled to his family offscreen after getting a word right. To make sure spellers had no help, their hands had to be visible on camera and an adult had to be in the room.
Sophia Lopez, 13, was forced to call in with her cellphone after her neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio, lost power. She rattled off the letters of yamamai (a large Japanese silkworm or the silk it produces), but then faltered on the definition of pomaceous, guessing that it relates to a fragrant hair dressing. (It means relating to apples.)
Ishan Ramrakhiani, 13, quickly conquered obley (a small flat cake or wafer, especially of altar bread) only to stall over what metanoia meant. He made a reasonable guess — the fear of being followed by other people — perhaps because of the word’s similarity to paranoia. But the answer was a fundamental mental or spiritual transformation, and the bell tolled.
A trick of a root language tripped up Erik Williams, 13, of Jacksonville, Fla.: The Greek tendency to use Y led him to an error in orismology (the science of defining technical terms), which he spelled “orysmology.”
The letter Y also snared Maya Jean Jadhav, 12, of Madison, Wis., after her successful spelling of vesicant (something that causes blistering). Confronted with a word meaning the “excessive veneration of the Virgin Mary,” she spelled Mariolatry as “Maryolatry.”
Other spellers could not be stopped, and some came armed with the experience of tournaments past: Of the 30 semifinalists, 19 had competed in the National Bee before.
This contest was the fourth time out for Ashrita Gandhari, a 14-year-old from Leesburg, Va., and her experience showed as she correctly defined cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle power) and spelled quondam (a word meaning former or sometime) and asterixis (a motor disorder characterized by jerking movements).
Roy Seligman, a seventh grader from Nassau, the Bahamas, easily reconstructed potiche (a type of vase). Zaila Avant-garde, an eighth grader from New Orleans, dismantled two words after tracing back their Latin roots: velarium (an awning over an ancient Roman theater or amphitheater) and solidungulate (having a single hoof on each foot).
Sreethan Gajula, an eighth grader from Charlotte, N.C., caught the spelling equivalent of a curveball, a homonym. But he had only to ask for a definition of the word, sloe (the plum-like fruit also called blackthorn), to clear up any confusion. He spelled it quickly, with plenty of time left on the clock.
American twangs, drawls, warbles, honks and lilts, among the various accents of the United States, tend to be points of pride in the states, cities and regions where they spring to life.
At spelling bees, they’re not so celebrated.
Among hundreds of spelling bee memories recorded by readers and sent to The New York Times, regional accents were a recurring theme — usually when they led to a speller’s downfall.
Alfred Kerby was the Florida state spelling champion in 1946, and traveled to the finals in Washington D.C., his daughter, Kathy Kerby, wrote in from Bedford, Mass.:
Alas, he lost in the finals because of his southern accent. Back then, before television was widespread, regional accents were much stronger than they are now. He always told us it was his own fault, that he would have been fine if he had only asked for the definition, or for it to be used in a sentence. The word was “mawkish,” but Al thought he heard “mockish.”
However, Al did come home with a prize from the nationals. There was an additional official competition to see who amongst the spellers had the best knowledge of science, and Al came in first!
In a submission from Jan Fiore, 74, of Norwalk, Conn., it was the Boston accent that caught a speller:
Catholic elementary school in the 50s just outside Boston. Down to the final 2 contestants. Seriously misspelled the word “quarter.” “Quawtah” wasn’t right??? Foiled by the Boston accent.
East Coast accents seemed to give a lot of spellers trouble, among them Lori Willmer, of Frankfort, Ill.:
I had a teacher in 5th grade (1971) who got us out of our seats and into a big circle around the room for a spelling bee. This was in a suburb of Chicago. He was from the east coast. My word was HUMAN. He pronounced it YOU-mon. He became irate that I kept starting my answer with the letter U. My classmate next to me whispered the correct pronunciation but he was so mad he had me sit down. I was one of the best spellers in the class so everyone was surprised.
In fact, the Eastern accent — and all its idiosyncratic variations — was no kinder to students on the East Coast, said Dennis Hudson, 57, of Burlington, Vt.:
I was in fourth grade, and had just moved from Massachusetts to Maine. My teacher had a pretty strong Maine accent. I was a good speller and excited to try to go far in our schools spelling bee. The first round was classroom based and I was eliminated early by a word the she gave me. I didn’t understand what word she said, so I asked for it in a sentence. I still had no idea what it was, given her accent. So I obviously got it wrong and was eliminated. I never did determine what the word was!
Every day, spellers convene on Facebook and Reddit, in text groups and Twitter threads. But this bee has no one reading aloud (unless they want to), and there is no age limit or application required (though a smartphone helps).
The New York Times has its own Spelling Bee, both in the print edition of the Times Magazine and as an online game that launched in 2018. In it, spellers make words from a set of seven letters, ascending to “Genius” level at a certain threshold of points and “Queen Bee” when they find every word on that day’s list.
In each game there is at least one pangram — a word that uses all of the letters in the puzzle, and sometimes there are more.
Spelling Bee debuted in print in 2014, as an alternative for those who might not be interested in the Times Crossword. The crossword editor, Will Shortz, had seen a similar puzzle called Polygon in The Times of London, and he decided that a variant would help broaden the scope of games that the magazine offered.
“I felt that The Times already had the ‘tough word puzzles’ audience covered with its crossword, acrostic and cryptic,” he said. “The readers we weren’t reaching yet were ones who’d like something easier and more accessible.”
Mr. Shortz modified the Times of London game by changing the shape to a seven-letter beehive. He also allowed players to reuse letters, which was forbidden in the British game.
The veteran puzzlemaker Frank Longo, who has worked as chief fact checker for the Times Crossword for the past 14 years, creates the magazine’s Spelling Bee from a computer program that generates lists of words containing seven unique letters, using the latest official tournament Scrabble word list as the source.
“When I submit the puzzle to Will, I always include two lists: One of words I would consider ‘common,’ and one of ‘questionably common’ words,” Mr. Longo said. “Then Will and his team go over each word on the ‘questionably common’ list (TACTILITY? BLINI? BLOTTO? REVIVER?) and decide if they believe it merits inclusion on the official published list.”
“And yes, sometimes naughty words show up,” he said. “If they’re really bad ones, I will just not use the word. But very often, there are infelicitous words that are unavoidable because their letters are so common. For example, ENEMA and DILDO happen to come up a lot. In cases like that, we usually just shrug and leave them off the official answer list.”
Reddit forums, websites and social media feeds have sprouted up for players to talk about the puzzle, share hints and express outrage about words that were left off the list. One player traveled 5,000 miles to meet friends she had made online. Sailers demand terms like “luff,” physicists call for “pion.” One botany-minded player, incensed about the absence of “raffia,” mailed a package of palm fiber ribbon to Mr. Shortz’s home.
You can tackle Spelling Bee, the crossword, The Mini, and other games by The Times here.
In 2002, “Spellbound,” a documentary about young spellers vying to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee a few years earlier, became a surprise commercial hit.
Critics praised its sensitive, down-to-earth portrayal of eight children from different economic and social backgrounds competing for the same goal. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary film and helped drive the popularity of the film genre — and the bee itself.
Jeffrey Blitz, the director of “Spellbound,” said he was inspired to make the film after watching a broadcast of the final rounds on ESPN2 when he was a graduate student at the University of Southern California. The competition was gripping, said Mr. Blitz, 52. But he said he wanted to learn more about the children he was watching and what drove them to participate in the high-pressure tournament.
Nearly 20 years later, Mr. Blitz talked about why the bee continues to have such a hold on the public. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Why do you think American adults love watching children agonize over how to spell?
The National Spelling Bee is kind of a perfect screen to project American achievement onto. It plays like a magic show with little kids performing feats of impossible spelling, but deep down we know it points back to their incredibly — incredibly — hard work. Like watching true sports, the bee feels like it’s both skill and magic all at the same time.
What do you feel are misconceptions about the children who participate in the tournament?
The most common misconception is that parents are somehow “stage parents” who pressure their kids to spell. In my experience, that just wasn’t the case. The work the kids need to do is consuming and it generally obligates parents to become glassy-eyed study partners. It’s almost always kids who realize they have a brain suited to this kind of memorizing and categorizing and problem solving and drag their parents into it.
Is the Scripps Spelling Bee a distinctly American event? What is it about our culture that has turned it into such a sensation?
It may not be uniquely American but it’s uniquely suited to America. Our language isn’t phonetic, our thirst for competitions is endless, and our children — coming from so many different backgrounds — are drawn to a proving ground that feels like a great equalizer. Master the language, master the country — it’s a kind of condensed American dream and it plays out on TV. Perfect.
From Akron to London to Dallas and Cape May, The New York Times has covered spelling bees for almost 150 years.
But even in 1874, when the phrase first appeared in the newspaper, it was called “a regular old-fashioned spelling bee” in Cleveland — reflecting the decades-long history of spelling contests in the United States. The Cleveland occasion of “wordy combat” was open to everyone, and organizers struggled to find “orthographical monstrosities” to defeat the adult competitors, like chalybeate, phylactery, logarithmic and pharmaceutical.
“With a fiendish delight,” an organizer “hurled those polysyllabic thunderbolts at the little class standing before him,” the article read. Eventually, even the last two spellers “floundered hopelessly and gave up in despair.”
Only two years later, a spelling bee “mania” hit England, according to The Times, which reported on a contest between 214 people at St. James Hall in London, with 25 pounds in prizes. Three hours in, the surviving spellers faced words like phthisic, mulligatawny, ptarmigan and vinaigrette, which The Times reporter noted “is not English.”
The bee ended in confusion: A dispute over what room to finish the contest in wound up with everyone expelled “and nobody knows who got the prize-money.”
In New York around the turn of the century, bees were popular among schoolchildren and adults alike. In 1906, at a spelling bee at Hester and Essex Streets in New York City, 18 schoolchildren were so competent that they were all declared winners together. In 1908, New Yorkers dressed up in silks and laces to compete in a bee at the Prince George Hotel on 28th Street, where competitors were given malted milk tablets as “brain-crackers.”
That year, a 14-year-old Black girl named Marie Bolden, the daughter of a mail carrier, won an international contest in Cleveland. She earned “tremendous applause” from the audience and headlines for her achievement as the only speller to have a perfect score. (The Times first covered the National Spelling Bee in 1926, a year after its creation. A 13-year-old girl won $1,000 on “cerise.”)
In 1930, members of Congress competed against newspaper reporters in a spelling bee in Washington, broadcast on the radio. It was over in 40 minutes, as the reporters “humbled” elected representatives, The Times reported. A Massachusetts congressman tripped up on “kimono,” saying, “If one must go down to defeat he can wish no better fate than to be beaten by a member of the press rather than one of his own associates.”
A few days later, a dispute over the spelling of one of the words — whether tranquillity had one or two l’s — was front-page news. A representative from Nebraska felt he had been disqualified unfairly.
For decades, spelling bees big and small continued to receive coverage, bringing words like voile (a fine soft sheer fabric) and opiophagism (snake eating) to readers. In 1983, they heard President Ronald Reagan, on a visit with spellers, call for the elimination of the Department of Education. In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled “potato” at a Trenton school spelling bee — even after a 12-year-old boy had spelled it correctly.
In the 2000s, the paper reflected the national competition’s ever-growing popularity: Its pages featured spelling champion families and reviews of films about spelldowns. And, though the venue changed from a gleaming Manhattan hotel to the back of a Brooklyn bar, coverage continued of adults drinking and spelling late into the night.
Since 2008, a South Asian American student has been named a champion at every Scripps National Spelling Bee. This year, two-thirds of the semifinalists were of South Asian descent, and at least nine of the 11 finalists are of South Asian descent.
Over the past two decades, spelling bees tailored to South Asian children have proliferated. So have spelling bee coaching companies founded by South Asian Americans. Flyers for local bees are handed out at Indian supermarkets, and the activity is spread through word of mouth at temple events.
“It is definitely a source of pride from an educational standpoint,” said Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about Generation Z’s New Path to Success.”
But it is also something more: The bee has become an occasion for unity within the South Asian American immigrant community, and it all goes back to a historic victory more than three decades ago.
In 1985, Balu Natarajan became the first child of immigrants to win Scripps, prompting an outpouring of support from people of South Asian descent. “Many people who I’d never even met felt a connection to it,” said Mr. Natarajan, 49. “I had no idea how much one could be embraced by a community.”
When he first competed in the Scripps spelling bee in 1983, he remembers only six contestants of Indian descent out of 137 students. A few of them gathered to take a photograph, documenting a small moment of togetherness — a stark contrast to the playing field of today.
Indian Americans are one of the younger, newer groups of immigrants in the United States. Over 60 percent of Indian immigrants living in the United States today arrived after 2000.
Parents were looking for hobbies for their children that prioritized “all kinds of educational attainment,” said Dr. Shankar. Spelling as an extracurricular activity soon began to spread by word of mouth. “They tell their broader ethnic community about it, and they bring each other to these South Asian spelling games, which are really accessible and held in areas where there’s a large concentration of South Asian Americans.”
The hobby is also passed down — within families — to younger siblings and cousins. That was the case for the 2016 Scripps champion, Nihar Janga, 16, whose passion for spelling was born out of a sibling rivalry.
Their family first came across spelling bees through Navya’s bharatanatyam (an Indian classical dance) teacher, who was involved with the nonprofit North South Foundation.
The foundation has over 90 chapters, hosts regional and national educational contests in a variety of subject areas, and raises money through these events for disadvantaged students in India. It’s common for top spellers from the foundation to continue on to Scripps.
For many students, spelling isn’t just a study, but also an all-encompassing way to learn about the world.
“Spelling is not just taking these 500,000 words in the English language and memorizing them and then you win the spelling bee — that’s not how it works,” Nihar said. “I want people to think of spelling just like any other competition, like wanting to learn the story behind that field and learning how that field can apply to the world.”
“You can’t just eat protein powder and then go be good at football,” he added.
Nearly 200 competitors this year have been eliminated from the 2021 spelling bee.
Here’s a sampling of the words that have given some of those spellers trouble, with definitions courtesy Merriam-Webster and sentences from the New York Times archive, where possible. (Example sentences that do not end with a publication date are inventions.)
nasopharyngeal: of, relating to, or affecting the nose and pharynx or the nasopharynx. “City testing sites use two types of nasal swabs — a traditional test, known as a nasopharyngeal swab and affectionately called a ‘brain poke,’ and a newer approach, known as an anterior nares sample, that is inserted more shallowly.” — Sept. 17, 2020
vamoose: to depart quickly. “Every town, every hamlet, and every man is for the Union, and if a single ranche in the gallant Grizzly Bear State harbors a traitor, the rascal had better vamoose at once.” — May 23, 1861
gelometer: an instrument for measuring jelly strength. “Studying memorabilia like an original gelometer, a contraption that tested Jell-O texture, some people spoke in spiritual terms.” — July 27, 1997
garrulity: the quality of being given to prosy, rambling, or tedious loquacity; pointlessly or annoyingly talkative. “His exhausted servants are forced to listen for hours to revival services conducted by him on a wheezy organ and he is subject to alternate fits of garrulity and taciturnity.” — April 16, 1923
instauration: restoration after decay, lapse, or dilapidation; an act of instituting or establishing something. “Seven years later, General Franco moved to make Juan Carlos, a student in Italy and Switzerland, the future king by arranging to have him continue his higher education in Spain, in what was later explained as ‘instauration’ rather than ‘restoration’ of a monarchy.” — Oct. 31, 1975
anticaries: tending to inhibit the formation of caries; tending to prevent tooth decay. “On the other hand, cheese seems to have an anticaries action by preventing bacteria from using sugar to produce decay-enhancing acid on the tooth surfaces.” — Aug. 21, 1985
pettifoggery: methods that are petty, underhanded, or disreputable; one given to quibbling over trifles. “James Randi, a MacArthur award-winning magician who turned his formidable savvy to investigating claims of spoon bending, mind reading, fortunetelling, ghost whispering, water dowsing, faith healing, U.F.O. spotting and sundry varieties of bamboozlement, bunco, chicanery, flimflam, flummery, humbuggery, mountebankery, pettifoggery and out-and-out quacksalvery, as he quite often saw fit to call them, died on Tuesday at his home in Plantation, Fla.” — Oct. 21, 2020
panicle: a compound racemose, which describes a kind of flower cluster. “I spent a whole morning last week with my nose buried in lilacs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, wandering through a collection of about 150 shrubs, from the old Chinese lilacs, with their wonderfully gnarled limbs and delicate, airy flowers, to the latest hybrids, with big voluptuous flower heads, or panicles, a bit too showy for my taste.” — May 11, 1997
fanion: a small flag used originally by horse brigades and now by soldiers and surveyors to mark positions. “A fanion, fluttering in the wind, marked the spot on the hillside where the children were convinced gnomes lived below.”
clinquant: glittering with gold or tinsel. “The guests at the gala, clinquant in finery and jewels for the ‘Shining Knight’ theme, were mostly unhappy to learn that the dinner options were lamprey pie, cabbage chowder or gruel.”
thooid: resembling a wolf; used of a wolf, dog, or jackal as distinguished from the foxes or alopecoid (like a fox) members of the genus Canis. “The puppy, despite her best efforts at projecting thooid authority, failed to intimidate the school bus as it drove by her window.”
Before there were bees, there were spelling fights, spelling combat and spelldowns.
Those were some of the terms used to describe spelling competitions in the 19th century, when the practice took off in local contests around the United States. One of the first printed appearances of “spelling bee,” with “bee” meaning a community activity or event, came in 1874, and the phrase gathered steam as the Gilded Age turned into the Progressive Era.
The first version of the national contest as we know it took shape in 1925. That year, The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., asked several other newspapers, acting as sponsors, to help it take the Kentucky state spelling bee to the national level.
The U.S. education commissioner at the time, John Tigert, wrote to the Louisville newspaper that the contest would “awaken a new enthusiasm for careful and accurate spelling.” More than two million schoolchildren sought to compete, and the finals came down to nine on a June night in Washington, D.C.
Frank Neuhauser, an 11-year-old from Kentucky, won in 90 minutes on the word “gladiolus,” a plant with sword-shaped leaves that his family happened to grow in the garden. He got $500, a parade in Louisville and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. (He grew up to be a lawyer, and an autograph signer at other bees.)
The media company Scripps took over sponsorship of the bee in 1941, though the contest was canceled from 1943 through 1945 because of World War II. It first aired on television in 1946, and for the next half a century various networks broadcast it, turning viewers into living room spellers around the country.
Over those decades, the contest became more professionalized and difficult. Some parents hire past champions as coaches, or spend money to travel to minor-league bees. Online study programs can help spellers review thousands of words at a time, offering instant feedback. And amateur versions and variations of bees have proliferated, including two from The Times.