11 Winning Words from the Scripps Spelling Bee
Last year, for the first time since 1962, the Scripps National Spelling Bee declared two champions instead of one. Thirteen-year-old Ansun Sujoe earned his claim to the title by correctly spelling the French loanword feuilleton, even after an attempt to pronounce it caused him to exclaim “whatever!” The term is defined as “a part of a European newspaper devoted to light literature, fiction, criticism, etc.” In French, feuilleton can also refer to a soap opera. Feuilleton entered English in the mid-1800s, and can be traced to the Latin folium meaning “leaf.” How does Sujoe's winning word stack up against his co-champion's?
Fourteen-year-old Sriram Hathwar was named co-champion after correctly spelling the word stichomythia, defined as “a dramatic dialogue, as in a Greek play, characterized by brief exchanges between two characters during a scene of intense emotion or strong argumentation.” After the competition, Hathwar explained that he and Sujoe were competing against the dictionary, not each other. He also summarized the English language in a way that likely resonates for many of his competitors in the Bee: “The English language is pretty brutal; it borrows so many words from different languages.”
The final word of 2013, knaidel, a Yiddish word defined as "a dumpling, especially a small ball of matzo meal, eggs, and salt," gave linguists something to stew on. After the competition last year, the New York Times reported that, according to members of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the term was spelled incorrectly in the competition. The traditional Yiddish spelling is kneydl. Lexicographers kept the winner out of hot water by explaining that that although it may not be kosher in Yiddish, knaidel is the more widely used spelling in English.
This obscure noun, which comes to English from French, is defined as “an ambush" or “a trap." It is thought to be an alteration of the phrase de guet apensé, which translates to "with forethought," and can be traced to the French verb penser meaning "to think." This term is sometimes spelled with a hyphen, as guet-apens, although the dictionary of record in the competition spells it without, and so did the champion of 2012, Snigdha Nandipati. Regardless, noting or failing to note a hyphen does not merit disqualification according to the official rules of the competition.
This winning word from 2011 is an elaborate way of saying "having wavy hair." It combines the Greek -trichos meaning "having hair" with the Greek word for "wave," kýma. Other lesser-known hair-related words to brush up on: pilar an adjective meaning "of, pertaining to, or covered with hair," horripilation, "a bristling of the hair on the skin from cold, fear, etc." (also known as goose bumps), leiotrichous "having smooth hair," and trichotillomania, “a compulsion to pull out one’s hair.”
In 2010, the winning word was a medical term of German descent: stromuhr. This term is defined as "an instrument for measuring the quantity of blood that flows per unit of time through a blood vessel." It is formed from the German words for "stream," strom and "clock," uhr. The winner aced the spelling of this term, but we wonder if she would have been able to spell the related term rheometer, defined as "an instrument for measuring the flow of fluids, especially blood."
Laodicean, the winning word from 2009, is used both as an adjective and a noun. As the former, it means "lukewarm or indifferent, especially in religion as were the early Christians of Loadicea." As a noun, "a person who is lukewarm or indifferent, especially in religion." Laodicea is the ancient name of a city in Asia Minor. In the book of Revelation, John delivers the message to the Christian church of Laodicea: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."
This term means "a reward, recompense, or requital." It can also be used as a verb to mean "to reward." It can be traced to the Old High German term widarlōn, a combination of widar meaning “back; again” and lōn meaning "reward." No doubt the contestants of the Scripps National Spelling Bee deserved a guerdon or two for the hours they spent learning the orthographic nuances of the English language.
If these budding orthographers don't find careers as copy editors or communications specialists, they might consider careers as medical professionals; the final word of 2007 (and second medical term on this short list) was serrefine, defined as "a small spring forceps used for approximating the edges of a wound, or for temporarily closing an artery during surgery." It translates literally from the French as "fine clamp."
Mastering the spelling of obscure medical terms will not guarantee a winning spot in this high-profile spelling bee; one must familiarize him or herself with esoteric linguistic terminology as well. Ursprache was the winning word of 2006. The term is defined as "a hypothetically reconstructed parent language." Proto-Germanic, the unattested ancestor of the Germanic languages, is an example of an Ursprache. This term comes from the German prefix ur- meaning “earliest, original” and the German term sprache meaning "speech."
This mellifluous word from the 2005 competition comes to us from the lexicon of music. Appoggiatura is defined as "a note of embellishment preceding another note and taking a portion of its time." It comes from the Italian verb appoggiare meaning "to lean upon" or "support." An appoggiatura is a type of grace note, that is to say, a note not essential to the melody. Another type of grace note is an acciaccatura, "a short note one half step below, and struck at the same time as, a principle note."
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