Beat the Dictionary

In 1936, the winning word was eczema. In 1967 and 1970, the words were chihuahua and croissant, commonly viewed words in TV ads for Eucrisa, Taco Bell, or Burger King.

Somewhere along in the 2000s is when the spelling bee contestants stepped up their game so much that the words became more difficult, less recognizable. In 2003: pococurante. 2011: cymotrichous. 2017: marocain.

2019 spelling bee winners
The eight winners of the 2019 Scripps spelling bee, photo by Erik Lesser

In 2019, as you may already have heard, there were eight winning words because the 2019 Scripps Spelling Bee resulted in an eight-way tie. Just for the record, those words were Auslaut; erysipelas; bougainvillea; aiguillette; pendeloque; palama; cernuous; and odylic. I’d be surprised if you even recognize anything besides bougainvillea.

Social and technological changes have created a competition that seems otherwordly in difficulty, yet there are more ties and more winners than ever. Contestants hustle to cram as many words in practice as they can, use special computerized services, hire coaches, and reportedly spend 30 hours a week looking up the meanings of prospicience and antipyretic.

One question widely circulating is: Should we do anything about it?

How Did We Get Here

The first National Spelling Bee was held in 1925, where nine children competed and the winning word was gladiolus. Words that stumped other finalists included cosmos and statistician, also now common words. In 1941, the E.W. Scripps conglomerate took on the competition and has shepherded it through the years. Scripps actually has a corporate motto: Give light and the people will find their own way, interesting especially since most corporations don’t have mottos except for the unwritten one: Make money and all else will be forgiven.

The 1925 National Spelling Bee finalists, photo at spellingbee.com

From nine contestants, the competition grew steadily to reach nearly a hundred contestants in the early 1980s, then 185 by 1987. NBC had originally broadcast the finals live in 1946, but the duties migrated to PBS, CNN, and then the brand-new cable channel ESPN, looking for any kind of content to fill programming hours.  Offshoots followed–an Academy-award nominated documentary, a movie, a musical–popularizing the theme of the spelling bee. By 2019, there were 565 regional participants.

Learning English Spelling Through Memorization Ought to be Tough

I was in the school-based bee in the 5th grade and made it to the final round of two against an 8th grader, where I decided aggregate was spelled in the same way as aggravate, and that was all she wrote for me. My daughter won her school bee when she was eight, kicking the butt of the 5th and 6th graders with dulcet and stentorian. She washed out at the Regionals where competitors were already shaving.

English is a notoriously hard language to spell, especially according to the many bilingual Americans who have augmented our melting pot culture. Not every country has spelling bees because other languages have rules which aren’t so darned whimsical. This was amply demonstrated in an I Love Lucy episode where Ricky tries to read a children’s story and tries to pronounce: bough, ought, rough, and through.

In recent years of the bee, the search for difficult words has groped beyond standard Latin and Greek stumpers like euonym to those from other languages like Feldenkrais and nunatak. The organizers are digging deep into medical textbooks and technical geographic terms.

We’re throwing the dictionary at you. And so far, you are showing this dictionary who is boss.

–Jacques Bailly, Official National Bee Pronouncer

TV Ruins Everything. So Does Studying.

This year, there were eight winners, and, for some, this is a travesty for a national competition. The comment-sphere is abounding with that critical debate. How can a competition shown on a national sports station end in an eight-way tie? Isn’t that just another example of our give-everyone-a-trophy mollycoddling culture? How can there be a $50,000 prize if you decide to give it to all the finalists tied for first?

Critics complain about the contestants who use coaches, buy special programs that make it easier to study, and in some cases bypass regional contests and pay for their own trip to the finals. In other words, they’re buying their way in, which we abhor in America because we prefer to pretend that everyone is still Abraham Lincoln, reading Aristotle by the firelight after chopping wood all day. Heaven forbid someone spends $600 for a spelling-coaching program rather than on the latest iPhone or a pair of shoes. These kids study 30 hours a week, the way kids in Chicago outside my dorm room used to play pick-up basketball every night for four hours hoping to be the next Michael Jordan.

Scripps actually instituted a tie-breaker test in 2017 after three years in a row ended in a tie. They quickly found that the test was a miserable experience. It was hard to administer to fit in with the production schedule for ESPN and highly stressful for the contestants. Executive director Paige Kimble: β€œIt was just squeezing way too much in a short timespan when really what these kids needed more than anything else was to rest a little bit, put food in their stomachs and clear their heads for the evening.”

Despite the grumblings, Kimble’s comments tips the organizer’s hand. After all, these are kids. Putting such a contest on national television has only one purpose: entertaining the masses. But there is a pretty big difference between being entertained by professional basketball players and 12-year-olds. Fostering cutthroat contests with children on television–prepubescent beauty contests, amateur chef competitions, pint-sized singers–doesn’t seem the best way to improve the lives of our children. A contest where the participants high five each other every time they get a word right seems a much better atmosphere.

In 2020, we deserve spelling bee reform to ensure there is just one champion…Step 4. The entire dictionary is replaced with a guidebook to Wales…then move on to the world of recipes from Finland.

James Dator, SBNation

Just Spell, Baby

How to fix it? James Dator, in SBNation, writes an excellently modest proposal that starts with removing the hints and speeding up the time clock. If necessary, move on to Ystradgynlais or raaka-aineet. Dator would like me to point out that he is a a certifiably above-average person.” He has it right. Scripps could fiddle with the rules a little, maybe reduce the available time from two minutes, although wouldn’t that just encourage speed spellers over everyone else? If you’ve noticed the development of tachylalia in debate teams in the last few decades, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Maybe Scripps has tinkered enough already.

Let them tie, since they’re already spelling freakishly bizarre words that educated people can’t even recognize. Americans have a hard enough time spelling any old English words, as is evidenced by this chart of words people google most frequently in each state. We can appreciate anyone who knows how to spell.

I still can’t get vacuum. Vacumm. Vaccum? It just looks wrong no matter how I spell it, and they agree with me in Iowa.

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