The Buzz About Spelling Bees

Why Is It Called A Bee?

The Scripps National Spelling Bee was established in 1925. “The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for,” according to Scripps. “A fairly old and widely used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family.

“The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769. Other early occurrences are husking bee (1816), apple bee (1827), and logging bee (1836). Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that.”

Up to Eighth Grade

In 2017, some 11 million students who won regional spelling competitions met in Washington, DC, to compete in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Edith Fuller, 5, was the youngest child to qualify for the bee. Most spellers are 6 to 14 years of age.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is designed to “help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.”

Spellers may ask judges for a word’s definition and use in a sentence. Do you know what these winning words mean—all the way back to the first Scripps National Spelling Bee, in 1925?

Nunatak, Scherenschnitte

In 2015, there were two champions. Why? According to Scripps, “There will be no more than 25 consecutive rounds of oral spelling involving three or fewer spellers.”

Gokul Venkatachalam, from St. Louis, MO, correctly spelled the word nunatak: a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.

Vanya Shivashankar, from Olathe, KS, correctly spelled the word scherenschnitte: the art of cutting paper into decorative designs.

2005: Appoggiatura

The winner was Anurag Kashyap from San Diego, CA. He correctly spelled the word appoggiatura: an accessory embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone, and usually written as a note of smaller size.

It comes from the Italian verb appoggiare meaning "to lean upon" or "support."

1995: Xanthosis

The winner was Justin Tyler Carroll, from Memphis, TN. He correctly spelled the word xanthosis: a yellow discoloration of the skin from abnormal causes.

Try to remember this one the next time you need a word that starts with x (it's not as pleasant as a xylophone, of course).

1985: Milieu

It could be argued that a spelling bee has a unique milieu. In 1985 the winner was Balu Natarajan, from Chicago, IL. He correctly spelled the word milieu: an environment or setting, especially of a social or cultural nature.

1975: Incisor

The winner was Hugh Tosteson, from San Juan, Puerto Rico. He correctly spelled the word incisor: a tooth adapted for cutting, especially one of the cutting teeth in mammals arising from the premaxillary bone of the upper jaw, in front of the canines.

1965: Eczema

Another medical term makes the list, although this one is a little bit more common. In 1965, the winner was Michael Kerpan Jr. from Tulsa, OK. He correctly spelled the word eczema: an acute or chronic noncontagious inflammatory condition of the skin that is characterized by redness, itching and vesicular lesions.

1955: Crustaceology

The winner was Sandra Sloss, from St. Louis, MO. While you might hope this word is the study of delicious pastry crusts, crustaceology is a branch of zoology that treats animals of a class of marine or freshwater arthropods—like the crust in crustaceans.

1946: Semaphore

There was no Scripps National Spelling Bee during the World War ll years of 1943-1945. The winner in 1946 was John McKinney, from Des Moines, Iowa. He correctly spelled the word semaphore: a system of visual signaling (as between ships) in which the sender holds a flag in each hand and moves his arms to different positions according to a code alphabet.

1935: Intelligible

The winner was Clara Mohler, from Akron, Ohio. She correctly spelled the word intelligible: capable of being understood or comprehended.

1925: Gladiolus

The winner of the very first Scripps spelling bee was Frank Neuhauser, from Louisville, KY. He correctly spelled the word gladiolus: any plant of a genus of plants native chiefly to Africa with a few native to Europe and Asia that have sword-shaped leaves and spikes of brilliantly colored irregular flowers.

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