A spelling bee is a difficult spelling competition in which participants of school age have to spell a series of words, letter by letter. If a contestant misspells a word, they are immediately eliminated. Spelling bees originated in the United States around a hundred years ago and today take place in almost all elementary and middle schools in the country. While classroom and school spelling bees take place regularly, there are also local and state competitions. The best spellers compete at national level at a high-profile annual event called the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The final round is broadcast live, and the overall winner awarded $52,500 in cash plus $400 worth of the Encyclopedia Britannica.


The word ‘bee’ is not a reference to buzzing insect, but derived from an Old English word meaning a ‘prayer‘ or a favour. By the 18th century, it had come to describe any gathering of people who unite their efforts to accomplish a task. ‘Bee’ is usually preceded by another word that defines their purpose: for example, an ‘apple bee’ is when farmers get together to harvest apples, or a ‘quilting bee’ is when a group of people gather to make a quilt. The expression ‘spelling bee’ means a group of people who assemble to spell words — albeit in competition with each other.


Spelling English words can be tricky, even for native speakers. There are forty-four sounds or ‘phonemes’ in the English language, but only twenty-six letters in its alphabet. English borrows many words from other languages, and has developed in a number of different countries around the world at different periods of time. As a result, the relationship between some words’ spelling and their pronunciation can be unpredictable. Perhaps given the country’s history as a melting pot  fusing many nationalities, spelling bees are extremely popular in the US.

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The National Spelling Bee was celebrated in 1925 as a consolidation of numerous local spelling bees. It was organised by a newspaper called the Courier-Journal based in Louisville, Kentucky. The winner was eleven-year-old Frank Neuhauser who, with his correct spelling of the final word ‘gladiolus’ (a kind of plant), won $500 in gold, a bicycle and a trip to the White House to meet US President Calvin Coolidge.

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Some of the toughest winning words correctly spelt in Scripps National Spelling Bees in the past are: “albumen” (another word for egg whites); “chiaroscurist” (a painter who uses light and shade rather than colour to create the illusion of volume); “autochthonous” (referring to a person indigenous to a place); “staphylococci” (a bacterium that causes pus to form); and “foulard” (a lightweight fabric made of silk or a mix of silk and cotton).