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Scripps National Spelling Bee again May 27, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings.

If you are in the U.S. you might want to watch the Finals of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee tonight (Thursday) at 8 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time). As translators, we are picky about our spelling and writing skills, so I always enjoy watching the kids spell words like autochthonous, Ursprache and – last year’s winning word – guerdon. These kids are impressive, because they always manage to spell words that I have never heard before. As a bonus you can expand your vocabulary.

The bee is open to students who have not turned 16 or passed beyond the eighth grade and who attend schools that are officially enrolled with the Scripps program. The winners of just under 300 local spelling bees qualify to attend the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. It can be quite suspenseful and exciting to watch them compete.

The term “spelling bee’ is a bit of a mystery. As the Spelling Bee website explains the origin of the term “spelling bee”:

The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for. 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.

Those who used the word, including most early students of language, assumed that it was the same word as referred to the insect. They thought that this particular meaning had probably been inspired by the obvious similarity between these human gatherings and the industrious, social nature of a beehive. But in recent years scholars have rejected this explanation, suggesting instead that this bee is a completely different word. One possibility is that it comes from the Middle English word bene, which means “a prayer” or “a favor” (and is related to the more familiar word boon). In England, a dialect form of this word, been or bean, referred to “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). Bee may simply be a shortened form of been, but no one is entirely certain.

A Dictionary of American English. Sir William A. Craigie and James R. Hulbert, eds. University of Chicago Press, 1944.

A Dictionary of Americanisms. Mitford M. Matthews, ed. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951.

Mencken, H.L. The American Language. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1938 (suppl. I, 1945: suppl. II, 1948).



1. Michael - May 28, 2009

I have often wondered why out-loud spelling of words has such a prominent place in American educational culture. Going through school, at least for students of my generation in Germany, we never were subjected to such a ritual. We had to spell correctly, of course, and written dictations were a big part of the on-going assessment (and of the entrance exam to secondary school). But I cannot remember a single incident where I or any of my classmates had to spell vocabulary out loud in order to proof our orthography chops. Interestingly enough, writing dictations doesn’t seem to be part of the test toolbox in U.S. schools. Could the different approach have something to do with the fact the letter representation and the resulting sound of a word in English can be very unpredictable whereas there is a certain regularity in German?

jillsommer - May 28, 2009

Hi Michael, oh believe me, I remember writing dictations in my school. Maybe that’s why I’m such a good speller now. I never participated in a spelling bee myself, but I’m fascinated by them. This may very well have to do with the unpredictability of English, but it seems there are a lot of Fremdwörter included in the spelling bee word lists. I distinctly remember Schadenfreude or something like that being in the finals last year.

Michael - May 28, 2009

I based my dictation pronouncement on our experience with our daughter’s schools in WA and VA. Could have been the place or the time. I recently saw a documentary on spelling bees (“Spellbound”), fascinating. So many of the words were of non-English origin.

2. Melissa - May 28, 2009

I love watching the spelling bee! I can’t imagine it being quite as interesting in German, for particularly the reason that Michael mentions – the unpredictability of English due to the many words borrowed and derived from other languages. For whatever reason, they are so fun and suspenseful to watch.

On the topic of dictations, I never did one in my entire life (Tennessee public school) but have really had to get used to them for my daughter’s 6th and 7th grade German language textbooks. I wondered to myself why they weren’t used in US schools, but maybe some states do use them? Maybe I will ask a teacher some day.

P.S. Spellbound is a fun documentary, isn’t it?

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