The History of the Spelling Bee

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“Elucubrate.” “Logorrhea.” “Esqualumose.” They’re not words that come up often in casual conversation. But if you’re one of the more than 500,000 viewers who tune into the Scripps National Spelling Bee, there’s a fair chance you’ve heard at least one of them.

Even if you don’t consider the Bee itself prime-time viewing, perhaps you’ve watched the 2006 movie Akeelah and the Bee or seen one of the numerous spelling bee documentaries released since 2000. Heck, maybe you even caught the 2005 Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Our culture is infatuated with spelling bees and, in particular, the grand dame of them all, the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Much like the Olympics, we swoop in periodically to become temporary experts on a subject and event of which we have passing knowledge. We make celebrities out of the competitors and icons out of hosts like Jacques Bailly, himself the 1980 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion.

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 national bee, a first since 1945. As a result, we continue under the historic reign of 2019’s “octochamps.” If you, like me, find it difficult to remember anything about the pre-pandemic Before Times, you may need a refresher on where we left the battle for spelling supremacy. On May 31, 2019, in an unprecedented victory over the dictionary, eight middle schoolers were crowned champions of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The 2021 bee is currently still on the books and set for June, though, we wait to see where the United States will stand in its response to the most recent c-o-r-o-n-a-v-i-r-u-s by then.

This pause in the proceedings may be a good time to reflect. When did the national spelling bee start? How does it work? Why do so many children compete—and why do so many adults watch them do it?

The Origins of the Spelling Bee

With its ESPN TV deal, the modern bee is a rather glitzy affair. But spelling bees have been part of American culture since the early years of the United States, combining the natural human tendency for competition with a much more practical educational aim.

“Underpinning spelling bees, especially those of America’s early years, is the objective of standardizing language as part of a nation-building project,” writes anthropologist Shalini Shankar in Beeline, her look at spelling bees through a generational lens.

Spelling bees, Shankar writes, developed because of a number of factors in the post–Revolutionary War United States. Those factors include a linguistic need. America had broken from England; it now desired independence from British English.

Leading the charge was Noah Webster, who published his definitive dictionary of American English in 1828, subsequently purchased by the Merriam publishing company. That dictionary, Shankar notes, emphasized the “syllabification” of our national language, along with mastery of the rules of pronunciation and spelling.

Regional spelling bees not only helped to drill these new spellings and word lists into American heads, they incentivized and gamified the practice for adults and schoolchildren. These bees are a major reason why we know “color” and “colour” are the same words, with the same meanings, but belong to different countries.

These bees, of course, were also an extension of American colonialism, creating a “correct” language and solidifying it as the national norm.

“Without question, American English was standardized as a national language to the detriment of other American languages, especially Native American tongues,” Shankar writes. “These languages rarely had a written record, making their preservation solely reliant on speakers passing them on to subsequent generations.”

That practice, sadly, has remained a national tradition.

opened book on brown table
Photo by Pisit Heng on Unsplash

Why Is It a Spelling “Bee”?

Where the name “spelling bee” came from is a topic of some speculation. There are multiple notable theories, none with consensus, according to spelling bee scholar Rachel McArthur.

The first—and, frankly, most sensible—stems from a historical quirk of Americanized English, which uses “bee” to form compounds with verbal nouns, McArthur writes in the journal article “Out of Many, One: Spelling Bees and the United States National Spelling Bee.” Quilting bees, husking bees, paring bees—early America had them all.

Both American and British sources, she writes, are fairly consistent that “bee” meant a social gathering or a meeting of neighbors. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary actually defines it as a “party.”

Allen Walker Read published one of the earliest histories of American spelling bees, “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk,” in 1941. In it, he notes the early bees were primarily popular in New England, where they provided social events aligned with Puritan sensibilities. As popularity waned in New England in the mid-1800s, the “party” swept the rest of the country.

Perhaps because of this organic regional spread, spelling bee rules remained fairly loosey-goosey until relatively recently. The Merriam-Webster dictionary, Shankar notes, was only chosen as the authoritative source for the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1957. Before 1951, there was no official source listed in the national bee’s rules, Shankar writes: “it was simply stated that ‘the judges are in complete control of the Bee. Their decision shall be final on all questions.’”

The Bee Strikes Back: 20th Century Resurgence

The National Spelling Bee began in 1925, organized by The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and hosted by nine newspapers from across the country. Admittedly, the term “national” may be misleading. As Shankar notes, the newspapers involved selected champions to compete but each state was far from represented. Still, “more than two million schoolchildren competed at the local and state level, with nine advancing to [Washington, D.C.].”

The winning word? Eleven-year-old Frank Neuhauser correctly spelled “gladiolus,” a flower that, The New York Times noted in his 2011 obituary, he happened to grow in his garden at home in Louisville, Kentucky.

In 1941, the E.W. Scripps Company, which at the time owned hundreds of national newspapers, snapped up the rights to the national bee. Since then, the competition has grown enormously. Consider even the past 30 years, when the bee field grew “from around 110 spellers in the 1980s to more than 275 spellers in the 2010s,” according to Shankar.

“Spellebrity” Culture

A large part of that surge surely comes from TV coverage. ESPN’s first live broadcast of the Scripps National Spelling Bee came in 1994. Since then, prime-time coverage of the finals has switch between ESPN and ABC, and more and more the earlier rounds open for daytime viewing.

On the glitzy stage in National Harbor, Maryland, each year, the middle schoolers become “spellebrities,” with their hometowns and families covered in the same fashion as athletes on draft nights.

But such tremendous growth doesn’t come without its pains. Regional bee programs, which feed to the national bee, have swelled too. Competitive spellers, though, aren’t distributed evenly across the country.

“While some kids participate in regional bees with about 25 other spellers, others go up against hundreds of school bee champions,” Shankar writes. “Many highly talented spellers were not advancing to the Bee due to the tremendous volume of competitors in the region.”

In an effort to address this chronic complaint from families in “intensely competitive” regional bee areas, Scripps introduced the RSVBee program in 2018. This invitational program is designed to provide additional pathways to the national bee for students in highly competitive regions or regions without sponsored regional bees.

RSVBee applicants must be school spelling bee champions or former national finalists; in the program’s pilot year, Shankar notes, 855 spellers applied.

The Rise of South Asian Spellers

It’s easy to spot the current trend in the spelling world merely by looking at 2019’s reigning octochamps. Of the eight victors, six are of South Asian descent. Before them came 11 straight South Asian American victors; in fact, 25 of the previous 31 champions had been South Asian Americans.

“If you have watched the National Spelling Bee in the last decade, it has become something of a cliche that an Indian American kid will win,” Shankar writes in Beeline.

The dominance is well-documented. Shankar writes extensively about the South Asian American spelling community, noting that the North South Foundation spelling bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee, both designated for the children of South Asian parentage, draw several thousand spellers each year.

This specific immigrant community’s embrace of the spelling circuit is also the topic of a 2018 documentary, Breaking the Bee.

Some of this rise makes sense purely because of demographics. The spellers we see on our TV each year now are solidly Generation Z and, Shankar notes, “children of immigrants comprise the largest minority group” of this generation. That said, South Asian Americans make up only about 1% of the overall U.S. population but have been overrepresented in spelling bee finals and as champions for two decades.

This story didn’t start with Gen Z. It started with Balu Natarajan in 1985 and continued with Rageshree Ramachandran in 1988. The trend picked up steam in the ‘90s, culminating in the 1999 victory of Nupur Lala, a win immortalized in the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Our current demographics shifts are continuations of those that started this sudden surge.

Breaking the Bee filmmaker Sam Rega pinpoints the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act as the true genesis for the rise of South Asian spellers in America.

“This act lifted race-based quotas about who could come and not come into the United States,” Rega said in an interview with The New York Times. “Subsequently, there was an influx of highly educated immigrants, especially from India, coming into the U.S. These families had a strong focus on education and raised their kids to also value education.”

As these highly educated immigrants arrived through the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s to meet the growing demand for STEM workers, they found existing immigrant communities and started families.

“Many of these individuals trained in the [Indian Institutes of Technology] and other extraordinarily competitive colleges and universities,” Shankar writes. “These immigrants not only value education but prioritize academic enrichment over all else. They forego their own leisure and position educational accomplishment as the focal point of their children’s lives.”

Despite the predictable racist backlash to their children’s success, these Indian American “Bee Parents” and the determined spellers they produce have fundamentally transformed the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

As Shankar notes, “Bee Parents’ emphasis on extracurricular education, combined with today’s competitive culture, makes their impact visible beyond the spelling bee to other brain sports and academic achievement for Generation Z.”

“Brain Sports”: Professionalizing the Bee

There is very little doubt that the Scripps National Bee has gotten much more competitive and much more difficult since Frank Neuhauser won on the word “gladiolus” in 1925. The “spellebrities” who take the televised, high-production stage are as professional as their surroundings.

In Beeline, Shankar follows a number of Gen Z spellers as they train for what is increasingly recognized as a “brain sport,” in the same way as calorie-burning chess.

“[Brain sports] demand rigor and offer competition on a cerebral level, with great potential reward,” Shankar writes. “Those who become elite spellers manage and structure their time meticulously. As children do with other sports, young spellers build stamina and focus to become experts, often while taking on numerous other activities.”

Elite spellers train year-round, through the local and regional bee cycles. They perform their own mock spelling bees online with speller social media communities. They hire coaches, a given if you want to make it to the national finals. That reality can be seen even in Akeelah and the Bee, released more than 15 years ago.

The professionalization of the bee—and the professionalization of its spellers—leads to vital questions about who has the resources to participate. Many of the spellers Shankar follows in Beeline, including those in the South Asian American spelling circuit, have a great deal of financial and emotional support from their parents and communities.

“Even amid the striking racial and ethnic diversity of the hundreds of kids who compete in the Bee each year, economic diversity is sadly lacking,” Shankar writes. “Spelling bees, like many high-powered extracurricular activities today, require significant investments of time and money.”

That’s a problem the RSVBee program hasn’t helped; these new wild-card paths to entry—which require spellers to cover their own travel, lodging, and participation costs—are only opportunities to kids and families who can afford them.

But if the Scripps National Bee and the elite American spelling circuit are still the province of economically and socially advantaged children, that reality hasn’t slowed the spread of spelling competitions across the country and globe.

The North American Spelling Champion Challenge hosts spellers from North America, Asia, and Africa every year for what’s essentially a two-week spelling sleepaway camp. The National Spanish Spelling Bee is one of several bees devoted to different languages. The competitions aren’t limited to children either; there is the National Senior Spelling Bee, and for years, spelling bees have made their move to challenge trivia at local bars.

Two centuries after Noah Webster’s first dictionary, our collective desire to compete is still a p-h-e-n-o-m-e-n-o-n.

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