What Does the “Bee” in “Spelling Bee” Mean Exactly?

As spellers from across the country and around the globe gather to take part in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, let’s try to settle a basic question: Where does the bee in “spelling bee” come from?

Bee is derived from the Old English bēn meaning “a prayer, a favor.” By the late eighteenth century, bee had become commonly associated with the British dialect form, been or bean, referring to the joining of neighbors to work on a single activity to help a neighbor in need: sewing bee, quilting bee, etc. This derivation counters a long held belief that bee refers to the buzzing insect and the social nature of a beehive. The earliest printed reference to spelling bee dates back to 1825. However, children had been engaged in competitive wordplay for years beforehand. Frank Neuhauser won the very first Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1925 by correctly spelling gladiolus. Some other former championship words include: