How quaint 18th-century 'spell-fights' evolved into the Scripps National Spelling Bee
The true origin story of the most uniquely American pastime
America has long loved the spelling bee.
Indeed, long before ESPN, the Scripps Howard News Service, or Dictionary.com, tiny orthographers were navigating the tricky, unpredictable terrain of the English language for the sake of education, entertainment, and the glory that comes with nailing the spelling of "pneumonia" in front of one's peers.
Before the Revolutionary War, early Puritan settlers would use spelling contests to motivate children to care about their own literacy, James Maguire writes in his book, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds. And by the 1800s, there was a spelling bee frenzy.
"As soon as the stars began to glisten, boisterous lads and modest misses came from all the neighborhood within two miles," American writer Dean Dudley recalled in the mid-1800s. "For it is deemed a fine amusement to engage in such spelling matches."
Not everyone loved these spelling contests, however. As one social critic wrote for The New York Times in 1875, spelling bees "are distinctly ours, not only because they are found nowhere else, but because they are a natural result of certain conditions of life which obtain only in this country," those apparently being "an absence of the copious flow of animal spirits found among the rural population of England, and of that gayety of heart which animates those in corresponding life in France or even in Germany."
By the time the 20th century rolled around, the competitions were considered "a quaint holdover from an earlier time," Merriam-Webster writes. Perhaps that's why Norman Rockwell, while chronicling American tradition in his paintings, decided to feature his city-slicking character Cousin Reginald properly spelling "Peloponnesus" in a school contest, to the visible annoyance of Reginald's country bumpkin relatives.
It was around this time that the orthographic sport once referred to as a "spell-fight," "spelling combat," or "spelldown" (but alas, never a "spell cage match") was at last referred to uniformly, with a buzzy ending derived from the folksy phrase for a communal gathering. There were already "husking bees," "logging bees," and "apple bees" (yes, that's where the restaurant gets its name from) — and now, the spelling bee.
In 1913, Congress challenged the press to a round of the beloved American pastime, with the secretary of agriculture serving as the announcer. "Demonstrating their ability to write the rules in their own favor, the contestants decided that each speller would get two chances at their first word," Meguire writes. "Demonstrating that not everyone in Congress is a mental giant, Rep. Foster of Illinois misspelled Satan, attempting it as Saten." Ohio Rep. Frank Willis was declared the champion after Washington Sen. Miles Poindexter was felled by "hydrocephalous." (The press had been knocked out before the final round, after Washington Post editor Ira Bennett missed the silent B in Bdellium).
For awhile, though, it appeared the amusement of out-spelling one's peers was losing steam. The spelling bee only earned a second life — and its modern iteration — when Kentucky's Courier-Journal decided to raise "general interest among pupils in a dull subject" by offering a cash prize to the winner of a national spelling bee in 1925. While hundreds of children participated at local levels, only nine were in the championship, having the honor of meeting President Calvin Coolidge before going head-to-head. That year, 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser of Louisville, Kentucky, correctly spelled the winning word, "gladiolus," and launched what has since become a nearly unceasing annual American tradition.
In 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service took over the event and loaned it a name it's kept ever since: The Scripps National Spelling Bee. The contest was on hiatus during World War II, but for the greater part of a century, young and ambitious logophiles have stepped up to the mic to sweat their way through some of the toughest words the English language can muster.
Spelling for sport has never seemed to raise the same fanaticism in other nations, and a good part of that is likely due to the incredible difficulty of the English language. Where most other languages follow actual logic in their spelling, English is unkind even to its native speakers. One analysis found that 60 percent of the 7,000 most common English words have at least one unpredictably used letter, The Atlantic writes. There are 205 different ways to spell 44 sounds in this feisty, unforgiving language.
"No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world's most irregularly spelled language," The Atlantic adds.
But as seemingly impossible as English is to master (there are more than 472,000 words in Scripps' official dictionary), America's spellers are getting so good that after 52 years of single winners, the last three spelling bees have ended with two co-champions sharing the trophy. "I think it's time to consider that the bee may be entering a new era where the level of competition is so intense that we need to entertain this as a possibility every year," said the bee's executive director, Paige Kimble.
There is no way to talk about the modern spelling bee without talking about race. When 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar and 11-year-old Nihar Janga became co-champions in 2016, it marked the ninth spelling bee in a row in which Indian-Americans were victors.
"If you are an Indian-American obsessed with American sports, occasions for ethnic fandom have been scant at best," writes The Atlantic's Sameer Pandya. "From my place of lack, [the recent domination of Indian-Americans in the spelling bee] is nearly as exciting as living in Chicago in the Jordan era, or being a New Yorker when Jeter, Posada, Pettitte, and Mo were young and winning rings." Or, as comedian Hari Kondabolu jokes, "It gives me great pleasure to finally say: Hey white people, learn the language!"
Part of the reason Indian-Americans are sweeping the spelling bee is simply devotion. Kimble, the director of the spelling bee, told The Washington Post that "what might be happening [with Indian-American contestants] is that there might be perseverance for the National Spelling Bee goal over a longer period of time." More and more winners are becoming champions after more than one visit to the spelling bee with Sriram Hathwar (Jairam's older brother) splitting the top prize only after his fifth trip.
Additionally, many champion spellers are brought up through "minor league" spelling bees that are run specifically for Americans of South Asian descent, including the North South Foundation Spelling Bee and the South Asian Spelling Bee. "We look forward to the day when these children are called American first," emphasized Kimble. "And we think they do, too."
But it's kids like Kavya Shivashankar and Nihar Janga that make the spelling bee the distinctly American tradition that it is. The spelling bee, ultimately, is a little bit like our strange little language, which itself is a stew of words borrowed, or downright stolen, from other places. A 12-year-old Cambodian refugee was stumped in 1983 by the spelling of the Mexican dish enchilada. This year, a 5-year-old girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma, will participate because she correctly spelled "alim," the word for a Muslim scholar, and "Nisei," the word for the American-born child of Japanese immigrants.
Today, two-thirds of Scripps spellers come from public schools, with many coached by no one more professional than a parent or a dedicated teacher. While children with college-educated parents still tend to make up the bulk of participants, the gender divide of champions is almost exactly even: As of 2016, 47 girls have won and 46 boys. While the bee might now take place on a professionally lit stage and be aired on the country's top sports network with one million people watching, when it comes down to a child, two minutes on the clock, and one of this language's befuddling little quirks of a word, not much has changed in 300-odd years.
Still, some have despaired in recent years that the America reflected in the spelling bee is too soft, and that the increasing number of co-championships is proof that younger generations "think they're gonna get the gold watch on the first day, not the last day."
But in the long history of the bee, perhaps no one has summed up the whole point better than 14-year-old co-champion Sriram did in 2014.
"The competition was against the dictionary," he said. "Not against each other."