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Why DO they call it a spelling bee?

Why do they call it a spelling bee, anyway? 

One hundred and three years ago, The New York Times proclaimed a Republican Congressman from Ohio the “Best Speller in the United States.” Fourteen members of The Washington Press Corps duked it out verbally against fourteen congressmen and senators of the United States. The Times went on to say “Now the Ohio member is ready to challenge the world in a spelling combat,” and referred to the event as “an old-fashioned ‘spelling bee’.

This was 1913 – over a decade before the first Scripps National Spelling Bee. So why was the term already considered “Old Fashioned”?

There are written accounts of spelling competitions by various names dating back to Elizabethan England, 1596. Edmund Coote penned a book that year in which he described a spelling challenge between two students to highlight the nature of silent letters, the differences between soft and hard consonants and acceptable variants. Nearly 200 years later even Benjamin Franklin prescribed a spelling duel as an essential learning staple. He recommended the practice in 1750, with the addition of a prize given to the victor: “a pretty neat Book of some Kind useful in their future studies.”

BenFranklinDuplessisA teacher in Newport called them “trials in spelling” in 1766; a Connecticut school’s tradition in 1795 was to have the bad spellers clean the schoolhouse while the good spellers went out to play. School-day contests gave way to evening ones during the early 1800s in New England, where students would gather for regional “spelling schools” or “spelling matches” that were social events as much as educational ones. By mid-century, the practice had moved west with the pioneers and reached California. So by the time the New York Times referenced “spelling bee” in the 1903 article, the term was antiquated.

The word bee had been used in conjunction with other group activities, such as a “quilting bee,” or occasions when farmers or neighbors would help each other, such as “husking bee,” “apple bee,” or “raising bee.” More grimly, The Oxford English Dictionary also provides evidence of the terms “hanging bee” and “lynching bee.” Despite the obvious link to industriousness and teamwork, this use of the word bee seems to have nothing to do with buzzing insects.

The word’s etymology shows that this bee is an alteration of a word that meant “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task,” and descends from the Middle English word bene. Bene also gave us the word boon, understood today to mean “blessing” but which also has the meaning of “benefit” or “favor.”

hi-res-6e04299a87cfd5d9771a2134a63cf76a_crop_northThe truth is, over the course of half a millennium the spelling bee morphed into a quintessentially American event that today provides the national winner a $30,000 cash prize, a $2,500 savings bond, and of course a trophy.


Don’t forget to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Ten West July 29-31, 2016. Tickets are available now. 




Joshua Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (New York: Putnam, 2011).
James Maguire, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 2006).
Peter Sokolowski, Of Schoolmasters and Spelling Bees (Merriam Webster Unabridged Online, 2013)

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Ten West Center for the Arts is a performing Arts Center run by Periko Partners. Periko Partners is a 50(1)c3 Non-profit based in Fortville Indiana.

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