Each year, whiz kids from around the United States gather for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Super Bowl of word nerdery (if the Super Bowl only allowed kids to participate). It reliably stirs up news coverage, and even people who have never watched the event itself are familiar with the concept because of movies or their own experiences participating in spelling bees as a kid. It’s such a cultural norm in American society that you might even forget that, at heart, spelling bees are kind of weird.
Where did this strange tradition come from? We dug into the origin of spelling competitions to find out how they got started and how they’ve evolved.
The Earliest Spelling Matches
For most of human history, spelling competitions were impossible. Spoken language developed much earlier than written language. And even when written language became common, there were no accepted standards of spelling for a while. It would be pretty hard to have a spelling bee when no one can agree on the right way to spell “through.”
It wasn’t until the 18th century that spelling standardization was popularized. Credit is often given to English writer Samuel Johnson, who published an early dictionary in 1755. It wasn’t the first dictionary to ever be attempted, but its influence spread much further. Along with the development of the printing press, the dictionary made standard spellings common for the first time. And that meant that everyone would have to start learning the proper way to spell.
The first mention of “spelling matches” appears in the early 19th century in The Madras School, a book about the education of young boys in England. The book says of the pupils, “Some of the boys, who are brothers, after they have left school in an evening, have spelling matches at home.”
This early use is probably a bit more informal than later spelling matches, being more like a game between children than a rigorous competition. In 1831, the Jamestown Journal recorded something much closer to what we think of today: “A big spelling match is announced in Covington, Ohio, at the High School, when the lad that stands longest on the floor and spells the biggest words without scratching his head is to receive a fine present.”
The practice of spelling matches spread throughout the United States in the 19th century. They may have been inspired by the publication of Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller, which taught generations of kids to read starting with its first edition, published in 1786. Webster, like Samuel Johnson before him, helped standardize the English language with his dictionary, but in Webster’s case he was doing it explicitly to create a new English dialect specifically for the relatively new United States of America. This involved changing spellings of certain words (like “centre” to “center” and “colour” to “color”), and there was no better way to teach kids these spellings than to engage them in a friendly competition. It’s no coincidence that today, the Scripps National Spelling Bee uses the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary.
It was also in the 19th century that they stopped being called “spelling matches” and started being called “spelling bees.” The first appearance of the phrase in print was in the 1870s, but it was predated by over a hundred years by “spinning bees,” which were followed by “husking bees” and “logging bees,” all of which involved people competing to complete some task. Some people theorized that the word “bee” was used because the events resembled insects at work, but more recently it’s been tied to the Middle English word bene, meaning “a favor.” Its origins are still a bit mysterious, however.
The National Spelling Bee
By the early 20th century, spelling bees were pretty common around the United States. While they were still being used as a helpful teaching tool, they were also becoming a kind of sport. Newspapers often sponsored spelling bees, drumming up local interest stories.
The first national spelling bee was held in 1908 by the National Education Association. It hosted teams from various cities all over the country, but its history is marred because of racist incidents. Certain teams were angry they had to compete with racially integrated teams, and they were only more irate when Marie C. Bolden, a Black eighth-grader from Cleveland, Ohio, was named the winner. The New Orleans team vowed never to return to a competition in the northern states. This appears to have been the first and last National Education Association Spelling Bee.
The Louisville Courier-Journal, a Kentucky newspaper, decided to take another crack at a national spelling bee in 1925. It banded together with eight other publications and put together what would become the first Scripps National Spelling Bee (though it wasn’t called that yet).
This first Bee was pretty mild in comparison to today’s massive event. It took place in a single 90-minute session, and there were only nine competitors. Despite the size, it was a pretty big event: all nine children met President Calvin Coolidge beforehand, and the victor was given a parade in their honor. That winner was 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser, of Kentucky, who won the $500 word by correctly spelling the word “gladiolus” (the runner up, Edna Stover, unfortunately spelled it “gladyolus”). The prize is certainly smaller than today’s $50,000 (even when adjusted for inflation, it would be just around $7,000 in 2021), but Neuhauser had the added benefit of basically becoming famous because of the win. When he died in 2011, his New York Times obituary called him a “speller’s speller.”
Over the years, the competition has changed in a few ways. In 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service got the rights to the program, and it became known as the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee until the “Howard” was dropped later. But perhaps the biggest change is to the size of the event. Today, the competitors are all of the kids who won regional spelling bees, and there are hundreds of those. In 2019, 562 competitors entered (and for the first time ever, eight kids won, because the judges ran out of words). And while it’s technically only a “national” spelling bee, competitors come from all over the world, from as close as Canada to as far as New Zealand.
Spelling Bees Around The World
You might think that with the success of spelling bees in the United States, the idea would’ve been adopted across many languages. That’s not really been the case, though. Compared to other languages, English has very strange spelling rules. This is mostly because English has so many loanwords, with vocabulary being adopted from French, Latin, Greek, Arabic and more.
Yet other languages are far more predictable in their spelling, so there’s really no point to spelling bees, except as a learning tool for young kids. There are a few exceptions, with Dutch-speaking countries having spelling bees, but none are on the same scale as the English spelling bee industry. There are other kinds of word contests — ones that test dictation speed are pretty common — but spelling is pretty English-centric.
With English being so widespread, spelling bees do exist pretty much everywhere, though. There’s the African Spelling Bee for the continent of Africa, the MaRRS Spelling Bee for the continent of Asia, and countless other smaller spelling bees across pretty much every continent.
English is in many ways a lingua franca of the world. Many countries consider it an important language to teach children, even if the country isn’t primarily English-speaking. Kids everywhere are forced to contend with the horrible, inconsistent spelling tools of the English language. And what engaging tool do teachers often use to teach spelling and vocabulary to their students? Spelling bees.