It is Bee season in America and the media is abuzz with news, not about the winged insects but about words and their spellings. The Spelling Bee is quite an American institution that has grown, over the years, into a noteworthy national event with high stakes. This is a competition in which contestants are asked to orally spell a broad selection of words, with varying levels of difficulty, and the one who can spell the most words correctly wins. What is unique is that the contestants are school children below the age of 14 years.
While it is in the United States that a game or competition involving words became popular, an early mention of this idea can be found in the early nineteenth century book about education of young boys in England titled The Madras School. One passage says of the pupils, “Some of the boys who are brothers, after they have left school in an evening, have spelling matches at home.” Following this, different terms were used to describe this type of spelling competition, including Trials in Spelling; Spelling School; Spelling-Fight, Spelling Combat and Spelldown. All these terms clearly indicate the competitive nature of the activity.
The practice of spelling matches spread throughout the United States in the 19th century. One reason for this was attributed to the publication of Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller which was first published in 1783. Noah Webster, a young school teacher had embarked on an ambitious project to compile and coin words to make a uniquely American-English vocabulary and spelling. The result of two years of work was a book of spellings for school children, which because of its blue cover, became known as the Blue-backed Speller. For the, then, relatively new United States of America, it was felt that the best way to teach children the spellings in this book was through spelling games.
By the early 20th century, spelling competitions were becoming popular across the country, being seen mainly as an educational tool. With this educational purpose in mind, the first national Spelling Bee as it began to be called, was held by the National Education Association in 1908. It was unusual for those days in that it had some racially integrated teams that competed, drawing the ire and protest from the conservative all-white teams. The competition was also won by a black eighth grader.
The next major national Spelling Bee was not held until 1925. This time it was sponsored by a local newspaper Louisville Courier-Journal which collaborated with eight other newspapers. After a series of state level competitions nine finalists travelled to Washington DC for the finals. The winner was an 11-year-old boy from Kentucky with the winning word gladiolus. Frank Neuhauser received a prize of $500 in gold pieces and was honoured with a parade on his return home.
Since then it was News Services that sponsored the event. After 16 years of being one of the sponsors, in 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service acquired complete sponsorship and changed the name to Scripps Howard Nation Spelling Bee.
In America the National Spelling Bee has occurred every year since 1925, with the exception of three years due to World War ll. Over the years it has become more and more competitive, as well as commercial, with higher prize money, and other rewards becoming more substantial. The winner’s prize today is $50,000, many zeroes added from the original prize of $500! The scale has also changed, from the nine students who participated in 1925, to over 500 entrants in the last few years.
Starting at the local town and city level, in elementary or middle school, and progressing to the district, state, and then national level, with numerous rounds and eliminations, it is an event that garners a lot of interest, including media attention, even internationally.
Over the years, the words have increased in difficulty, and the competition has added new rules to further the complexity, and test a deeper understanding of spelling, vocabulary, learning concepts, and correct English usage. One thing has remained constant since its inception with Noah’s Blue-backed Speller— Webster’s New English Dictionary is the official dictionary of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and considered the final authority for the spellings of words. It contains about 473,000 words, any of which, potentially, the participants could be asked to spell.
While the Spelling Bee is popularly considered to be originally and characteristically “as American as apple pie” it is ironic that for the last many years it is children of Indian origin that have won. While Indian-Americans make up about one percent of the total population of the United States, the majority of winners in the past 20 years belong to this group. The first champion was 11-year-old Balu Natarajan who won in 1985. Since 1999, 26 Spelling Bee champions have been Indian-American.
The finals of the 2021 Spelling Bee overturned this trend with 14 year-old Zaila Avant-Garde becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
For an event that is all about words, the most enduring mystery about this is why it is called a Spelling BEE! Most people have for years thought that this must have some association with the industrious and social insect. But scholars feel that the word bee is in fact a derivative from the old English word bene or been, which means “a prayer” or a “favour” referring to “voluntary help given by neighbours towards the accomplishment of a particular task.”
This meaning of Bee describes its traditional reference to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbours joined together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, spinning, logging etc.) usually to help one person or family.
But over the years the event has spawned the kind of cut throat competition that marks all sporting events. Children who are deemed to have potential are “groomed” from the time they start school. They spend years in rigorous “training” under professional coaches. They are under great pressure to “perform” and win at any cost.
The spirit of community, voluntary participation and selfless cooperation that was the root of the Bee in the Spelling Bee seems today to be a far cry from the extremely competitive, and even combative, event that the Spelling Bee has become.