Why do good spellers compete in a spelling “bee”? The answer involves all the favorite subjects of a spelling bee winner—etymology, philology, and, of course, spelling.
The Queen Bee
According to Merriam-Webster, lookups of the word “murraya” spiked 100,000% on July 8–9, 2021.
Patterns of word usage ebb and flow over time, and—based on current events, pop culture, and other new or recycled ideas—so does our interest in certain words. One of those events is the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
On July 8, 2021, eighth grader Zaila Avant-garde of Louisiana became the first Black American to win the highest honor that may be bestowed upon the orthographically gifted. The winning word “murraya,” which most of us have probably never heard before, refers to a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees named for Swedish botanist Johan A. Murray.
And Zaila’s ability to spelling obscure words is just the beginning of her talents—she also holds three basketball-related world records, she can unicycle and juggle simultaneously, and her side interests include gene editing and neuroscience.
The Helpful Bee
Unlike “murraya,” the word bee itself isn’t likely to turn up on a spelling bee word list. But most people, even spelling champions, probably don’t know the origin of the word. (Are honeybees particularly good at spelling competitions?)
As used in the context of a spelling bee, “bee” is an alteration of a word that was rendered “been” in some dialects of English. The word descends from the Middle English “bene,” which denoted “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task” (Merriam-Webster). “Bene” is also related to the English word “boon,” which similarly indicates a blessing, benefit, or favor.
This word “bee” has been used to describe community activities where neighbors made a social event out of helping each other with tasks. Historically, you might have attended a quilting bee, a (corn) husking bee, or a (barn) raising bee.
And yes, some linguists also connect this term with the insect type of bee. The industrious and cooperative nature of bees provides an apt metaphor for a group of friendly neighbors working together to accomplish a task.
“Spelling bee” began to show up in print sources around the turn of the twentieth century. However, it was often modified with terms like “old-fashioned,” indicating that the spelling bee had been around for quite some time but under different names. Before then, a spelling competition might have been called trials in spelling, spelling school, spelling match, spelling-fight, spelling combat, or spelldown (these are all beginning to sound more like a Wizard’s Duel than anything else!).
The spelling bee, which is often described as a “brain sport,” is typically seen as competitive rather than cooperative. But the hard work required to prepare for such a competition and the buzzing of young contestants reciting letters point us toward the characteristics of the honeybee.
And what’s more, bees are foundational to our ecosystem. They pollinate the flowering plants that we depend on for food and raw materials and beauty and turn it into sweet, sweet honey. Likewise, the foundational elements of letters and words that build up the English language, which has been cross-pollinated with Latin and French and many other linguistic influences, are combined to produce the rich vocabulary and ever-evolving possibilities of expression that English offers today.
The Spelling Bee
In English, there was no such thing as “correct” spelling until the eighteenth century. Before then, writers freely spelled the same words in different ways. While others would generally understand what they meant, there was mounting frustration that there was no regularity in the written language. This frustration along with a Protestant push to increase literacy so that common people could read the Bible led to the publication of English dictionaries. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary was a highly influential dictionary of this time that prescribed English spelling and word usage. We can view the dictionary as a record of sometimes arbitrary decisions about which spelling of a word would be considered correct—decisions that we now see as indisputable.
Once there was an agreed-upon standard, “correct” language use came to be a sign of education. In class-conscious Britain, correct pronunciation was the mark of the elite, while in America, correct spelling was the signature of a scholar. By the mid-eighteenth century, it was common for American schools to hold spelling competitions for students—and thus, the spelling bee was born from the uniquely American obsession with prescribing how to write the English language. As mentioned previously, these competitions went by different names until the turn of the twentieth century.
The spelling bee was first held on the national level in 1925. Nine newspapers joined together to host the National Spelling Bee to promote literacy. The bee has been held every year since then except for during World War II and during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 1957, Scripps adopted Merriam-Webster’s Third International Dictionary as the official dictionary of the bee.
Spelling bees spread to many other countries around the world, but they are generally limited to English-speaking areas. Why? Because other languages have much more predictable spelling systems. English is one of the only languages where so much memorization is required!
To win a spelling bee takes more than just raw talent. It requires an exceptional degree of diligence and discipline for daily study, a love for the English language and its historical development, and support from expert coaches and commercial word lists. The 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee underscores the role of adult and community support, following the story of a young girl from an urban neighborhood and single-parent household who ascends to the ranks of the national spelling bee. Akeelah is a truly brilliant speller who overcomes both self-doubt and mocking from others. With courage and intelligence, she beats the odds and inspires all those who have rallied around her.
As elite spellers pass on their wisdom to the next generation and as coaching and commercial resources have become essential for success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the bar is raised higher and higher each year. Data analysis provides an avenue for analyzing weakness and improving efficiency in studying. We are getting better and better at the game.
In 2019, the bee ended in an eight-way tie as the contestants blew through round after round of challenging words as if they were a breeze. The Octo-Champs, as they are known, broke the game. Sports Illustrated wrote, “They hadn’t beaten one another. Instead, together, they’d beaten the dictionary.” Merriam-Webster responded: “The Dictionary concedes and adds that it is SO. PROUD.” After the astounding win, the rules were changed to include multiple-choice vocabulary questions and a lightning round to eliminate the possibility of a tie.
Whether it is a fierce competition on an international level or a local elementary school contest, the spelling bee is a celebration of the “correct” orthography that—while still not fixed, but much less fluid than in times past—is a mark of dedication and education. In fact, one former champion describes winning the spelling bee as an embodiment of the American meritocracy, as it requires both individual discipline and access to resources for study to beat the competition (Sealfon, 2019).
Baccellieri, Emma. “How the Octo-Champs of the 2019 National Spelling Bee Have Changed the Game.” Sports Illustrated, June 7, 2019. https://www.si.com/more-sports/2019/06/07/scripps-national-spelling-bee-8-way-tie-unprecedented-result-merriam-webster-dictionary.
Bowman, Emma. “National Spelling Bee Adds New Rules to Help Winners Sting the Competition.” NPR, April 23, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/23/990400434/national-spelling-bee-adds-new-rules-to-help-winners-sting-the-competition.
Fogarty, Mignon. “Why Is It Called a ‘Spelling Bee’?” Quick and Dirty Tips, June 7, 2018. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/why-is-it-called-a-spelling-bee.
Merriam-Webster. “6 Actual Names for Historical Spelling Bees.” Word History. Merriam-Webster online dictionary. Retrieved July 16, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/alternate-spelling-bee-titles.
Merriam-Webster. “Trending: Murraya.” Merriam-Webster Trend Watch. Merriam-Webster online dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/news-trend-watch/zaila-avant-garde-wins-bee-with-murraya-20210709.
Sealfon, Rebecca. “The History of the Spelling Bee.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/history-spelling-bee-180971916/.
Shankar, Shalani. “Why It’s Big News When a Black Girl Wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee.” Chicago Sun-Times, July 12, 2021. https://chicago.suntimes.com/2021/7/12/22574106/scripps-national-spelling-bee-black-education-zaila-avant-garde-sun-times.
The Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Dictionary.” Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/summary/dictionary.