The Hardest Spelling Bee Words Tend To Have This Thing In Common

The English language has borrowed a lot from other languages, and as it turns out, some root languages present trickier spelling conundrums than others.
Scrabble letters spelling 'amour' and 'love'

Most languages don’t develop in a vacuum, and English is no exception. The English language contains innumerable loan words that come from Spanish, Old Norse, French, Greek and beyond. Is it any small wonder, then, that certain root languages produce the hardest spelling bee words?

“English has always borrowed words from other languages, and once they are found in our dictionaries, they are considered to be English words,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large of Merriam-Webster. “With words from European languages, the more recent the borrowing, the more likely it is that its spelling is unchanged or nearly unchanged in English. Since the sounds of French and German are different from those of English, this adds an extra dimension to the difficulty of spelling these words — on top of the fact that English spelling isn’t truly phonetic in the first place.”

We partnered with Merriam-Webster, the official word source for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, to investigate the source of the trickiest spelling quandaries in the English language. And after analyzing a decade’s worth of the hardest spelling bee words — 398 toughies that have stumped contestants in the final round, to be exact — we’ve narrowed things down a bit.

For one, classical languages are responsible for the largest share of misspelled words from the Bee’s final rounds. Words with Latin etymologies were the most common stumbling blocks in the final round (27 percent of all words) followed by Ancient Greek (21 percent). Moreover, many scientific, medical and legal terms trace their origins back to Greek and Latin roots. Nature and natural science words account for 38 percent of misspelled words. This was followed by words related to medicine, the arts, and political or legal topics (13 percent, 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively).

Taking modern languages into account, French was the toughest root language to contend with, accounting for 19 percent of all misspelled words. In second and third place was German (7 percent) and Italian (6 percent).

In comparison, our direct linguistic ancestry is a bit more innocuous from a spelling bee standpoint. Words directly descended from Old English or Middle English accounted for 2 percent of knockout final-round words.

“This was a fascinating analysis — we would not have expected the two languages most closely related to English to be those that caused the greatest trouble,” said Julie Hansen, CEO US of Babbel. “For us at Babbel, the porous nature of linguistics provides endless drama; how we borrow, loan, tweak, and revamp words from other countries and cultures in our ongoing quest for better communication. Every year we are inspired by watching these kids grapple with the toughest words in the Bee and we hope this list gives them an extra boost of confidence. ”

Here’s a list of the hardest spelling bee words from the trickiest modern languages, as well as their phonetic pronunciations.

The Hardest Spelling Bee Words

French Origin

Bondieuserie [bohn-dyooz-ree] — Banal and often shoddy religious art

Bourrée [boo-ray] — A ballet combination that consists of small crossing steps

Clafouti [cla-foo-tee] — A dessert consisting of a layer of fruit (such as cherries) topped with batter and baked

Gaillardia [guy-ar-dee-a] — Any plant or flower of a genus of western American herbs having hairy foliage and long-stalked flower heads with showy rays

Paillasson [pie-ya-sone] — Coarsely woven natural or synthetic straw used for hats

Pissaladière [pee-sa-la-dyair] — An open-faced pastry topped with olives, onions and anchovies

Réseau [ray-zoh] — A group of meteorological stations under common direction or cooperating in some common purpose

Sarrusophone [sah-roos-o-fon] — A metal wind instrument with a double reed and a tube of wide conical bore played like the bassoon

Zenaida [zen-eye-da] — any bird of a genus of tropical American pigeons that has one species reaching the West Indies and formerly the Florida coast and one occurring in the southwestern United States

German Origin

Bewusstseinslage [beh-VUST-zines-laggeh] — A state of consciousness or a feeling devoid of sensory components

Drahthaar [DRAHT-har] — A dog of a German breed of wire-haired pointers

Hallenkirche [HALL-en-keer-sheh] — A Gothic church, especially in Germany in which in place of the clerestory the aisles are extended to nearly the height of the nave

Schefflera [SCHEF-luh-ra] — Any of several shrubby tropical plants that are cultivated for their showy digitately compound foliage

Schwärmerei [schvair-muh-RYE] — Excessive unbridled enthusiasm or attachment

Schwyzer [SCHVEE-tsah] — A breed of large hardy brown dairy cattle originating in Switzerland

Vitrophyre [vee-tro-FUHR] — Rock having distinct crystals (as of feldspar, quartz or augite) in a relatively fine-grained glassy base

Best Of The Rest

Aalii (Hawaiian) [ah-LEE-ee] — An ornamental shrub or small tree of tropical to subtropical regions that has narrow, glossy leaves coated with a sticky substance when young and a fruit that is a winged, papery capsule

Ayacahuite (Spanish) [ah-jah-kah-WEE-tay] — A large Mexican pine tree with long needles and extremely large yellowish red cones

Bakshaish (Iranian) [BOCK-shy-eesh]] — A semi-antique or antique Persian carpet with usually angular designs

Cipollino (Italian) [chip-oh-LEE-no] — A light-colored Roman marble containing layers of micaceous minerals and abundant silicates

Coaming (English) [COH-ming] — The raised frame around a hatchway, skylight, or other opening in the deck of a ship to prevent water from running below

Háček (Czech) [HAH-check] — A wedge-shaped diacritic placed over a letter to modify it — an inverted circumflex — called also wedge or caron

Lassi (Hindi) [lah-SEE] — A flavored iced yogurt drink that may be either sweet or salted

Minhag (Hebrew) [min-HAHG] — Jewish religious custom

Tyee (Chinook) [TAHY-ee] — A king or chinook salmon, especially when of large size

Yunnanese (Mandarin) [YOO-nan-ease] — Of or relating to the province of Yunnan, China, or its inhabitants

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