It’s “bee” season around here. No, not hives or honey, but words. My local newspaper has sponsored the county spelling bee for more than fifty years. This year, some 16,000 students from grades three-through-eight participated in classroom spelling bees in our county’s 138 schools. Ultimately, 13 area students competed at the county level, the final champ winning an all-expenses paid trip to the 86th Annual 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee to be held in Washington DC, June 1-2.
Since bees are such social insects, the word “bee” became the collective noun in the 1800’s for gatherings of people doing all sorts of things, from building barns, husking corn, and sewing quilts. Throughout the 19th Century, popular “education exhibitions” of students showing off their academic skills in subjects such as spelling and geography came to be called “bees” as well. The concept of the “spelling bee” is almost certainly original to the United States.
The earliest use of the term “spelling bee” in print dates to 1825 although the contests certainly had been held long before that. One key force behind spelling contests was the Noah Webster Spelling Book. First published in 1786, the “Blue-backed spellers” were essential parts of any American elementary school for five generations. Nowadays, kids use the Merriam Webster dictionary.
In April 1850, the first “official” references to the term “spelling bee” appeared in New York Monthly Magazine.
The year 1875 saw an enormous event in the history of the spelling bee. The Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, sponsored a huge spelling bee, and the event started out with a humorous monologue by the town’s most famous resident, Mark Twain. In his Autobiography, the author indeed assures readers he was a masterful speller as a schoolboy.
In 1925, the United States National Spelling bee was inaugurated by The Courier-Journal newspaper of Louisville, Kentucky. The first winner of an official spelling bee was Andrew Smith. Scripps Howard News Service acquired ownership of the national program inn 1941 and changed the name to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. Today, the National Spelling Bee is sponsored by English-language newspapers and educational foundations. The top “masterful spellers” come from all fifty states as well as Canada, the Bahamas, New Zealand and Europe. Winners receive a cash award.
Typically, a spelling bee is a competition to spell English words. Spelling Bee Competitions are also held United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Indonesia, and India. Similar competitions are held as France’s “La dictée” and Poland’s “Dyktando”.
Spelling Bees are virtually nonexistent in countries whose national language follows more phonetic spelling rules, as compared to the largely historical spelling of the English and French languages.
The winning words this year from our 13 area champs were chimichanga, impervious, sukiyaki, Esperanto, tournament, grotesqueness, barrow, olympiad (twice), propaganda, magnolia, prodigal, and android.
Now who of you out there don’t remember spelling bee scenes from such favorite shows as Little House on the Prairie or Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman?
Have you ever been in a spelling bee? I represented my school as an 8th grader, and misspelling “abscess” still haunts me.