Celebrating a Milestone in Spelling History: Babbel Speaks to America’s Oldest Spelling Bee Champion

As the 96th Scripps National Spelling Bee approaches, Babbel has tracked down America’s oldest Spelling Bee winner, 84-year-old William Cashore.
Photo of William Cashore winning the Spelling Bee in 1954.

In 1954, a Norristown, Pennsylvania, eighth grader clinched victory with the word “transept’”at the 27th Scripps Spelling Bee Championships (held that year in Washington, D.C.). On the 70th anniversary of his win, William Cashore granted us an exclusive interview, sharing the secrets behind his success (including how multilingualism played a part), previously unseen photos and memories of his victory tour, which included meetings with American TV host Ed Sullivan and U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon. He also revealed how he spent his prize money.

Today, William lives in Rhode Island and is a retired neonatologist, having spent his career in the field of medicine, specializing in the medical care of newborn infants. William was Professor of Pediatrics at Brown University (and credits the experience of his 1954 Spelling Bee win as contributing to his successful career in academia). He has two daughters and four grandchildren. Both his brother and his sister also took part in national Spelling Bee championships, and his niece, Kristin Cashore, is the author of the best-selling and award-winning Graceling Realm young adult fantasy novels (translated into 30 languages).

Reflecting on the past, William expresses sadness that words like “integration,” “gracious living,” “disarmament” and “co-existence” seem to have faded in use, despite their meanings and essence being as relevant today as they were then. He nodded to his favorite word, “love,” offered advice for this year’s competitors, and revealed the words that still make him reach for a dictionary!

Babbel’s Esteban Touma comments: “We were proud to have found William, and grateful that he was happy to share his memories of his unique moment of national fame at the 1954 Spelling Bee. Seventy years on, William’s insights are as relevant as ever. His careful preparation for the competition as a child, along with his exposure to different languages around his neighborhood and at school, really show how valuable being multilingual can be. His impressive achievements and continued interest in language learning really highlight how language can shape our futures.”

If you are a journalist interested in speaking with William, please email us here.

William Cashore poses with children in 1954 (left), and poses with his trophy, May 2024 (right).
William Cashore poses with children in 1954 (left), and poses with his trophy, May 2024 (right). Credit: William Cashore.

Babbel’s Interview With William Cashore

Why did you want to compete in the Spelling Bee?

William: “I was good at English and spelling, and my school had just entered the Bee in 1953. My parents were very supportive. My father was hoping to win an Encyclopedia Britannica!”

How did you prepare for the Spelling Bee?

William: “I practiced long lists of words. My mother was an elementary school teacher. My father, partly self-taught, was very good at etymology. We used “down time” from homework to practice our lists of spelling words.”

Did learning other languages in school contribute to your proficiency in spelling?

William: “Informally, we did know some words and phrases borrowed from ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’, as I grew up in the vicinity of older members of the community who spoke it. French and Latin helped in high school, but the Bee was in eighth grade, so I can’t claim to have been fluent at this stage! We heard Latin every Sunday at church, and practiced it as altar servers. Some old prayer books had side-by-side Latin and English texts.”

Willam added that, in his opinion, “learning another language gives you a perspective on your own language and insights into the thinking and processes of the other language and culture.” Babbel couldn’t agree more!

What’s your favorite non-English word that is used in day-to-day conversational American English?

William: “Some of my favorite foreign words are imbroglio, interregnum, vichyssoise.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with these words, Babbel has prepared the following definitions:

  • Imbroglio — an extremely confused, complicated, or embarrassing situation
  • Interregnum — a period of discontinuity or “gap” in a government, organization, or social order
  • Vichyssoise — a soup made of cooked and puréed leeks, potatoes, onions and cream

Fewer US pupils are learning Latin in high school than ever before. Do you think this trend should be reversed? Why is Latin useful?

William: “Latin language and Roman history are preludes to ‘Western culture.’ Latin is more than a historical curiosity. It’s a tool for understanding today’s words and language: many of our structural English words are of Latin origin, or have Latin roots, prefixes or suffixes. Latin is also the ancestor of Spanish, our second most commonly used language.”

In 1954, you won with the word “transept.” Did you know it already or was that your first time hearing it?

William: “I knew the word ‘transept,’ but had never had to spell it before!”

How did winning the Spelling Bee positively impact your academic and professional life?

William: “Winning the Bee created expectations, not only for others, but also for myself. It gave me confidence for intellectual pursuits and for public speaking.”

Did winning the Spelling Bee have any negative effects?

William: “I don’t recall any negative effects of winning the Bee. Some of my new high school classmates made fun of me.”

Do you remember how you spent the $500 prize money?

William: “I bought some new clothes. I paid for the trolley ride to and from my school bus. I think we bought some savings bonds, or opened a small bank account. We did get an Encyclopedia Britannica!”

Following your win, you met Ed Sullivan. Do you have any interesting memories of him or other famous public figures that you met in the weeks following your victory?

William: “I met Vice President Nixon who seemed gracious and accommodating. Ed Sullivan was upbeat and very polite to his guests, but also very busy, and fully in charge of his show. I was also on I’ve Got a Secret and had a little Spelling Bee with baseball player Leo Durocher and his wife, the actress Laraine Day.”

William Cashore meeting then Vice President Nixon, May 1954. Credit: William Cashore.
William Cashore meeting then Vice President Nixon, May 1954. Credit: William Cashore.

What is the longest word that you can correctly spell?

William: “Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, antidisestablishmentarianism and sacrococcygeal.”

For those unfamiliar with these words, Babbel has prepared the following definitions:

  • Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis — the longest word in the English language, and an artificial long word meaning: a lung disease caused by inhaling very fine ash and sand dust
  • Antidisestablishmentarianism — opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England
  • Sacrococcygeal — of, relating to, affecting, or performed by way of the region of the sacrum and coccyx

Do you have any tips for young people struggling to master spelling?

William: “English pronunciation is difficult; think ‘through,’ ‘though,’ ‘thought,’ ‘tough,’ ‘bough’ and so on. You have to memorize many words, and it helps to know roots, prefixes and suffixes. Even good writing may contain misspellings, and may need good proofreading and editing.”

Do you have any advice for today’s Spelling Bee participants when approaching challenging words?

William: “Good spellers should read a lot, vary their reading and have a dictionary handy. In a Bee, ask for the meaning, try to analyze the parts of a word, and stay calm and deliberate. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, as this can’t be done quickly!”

In today’s digital age with spell check and autocorrect, proficiency at spelling is at risk of becoming undervalued or underappreciated compared to when you won the championship. Why is spelling important?

William: “Good spelling is a mark of attention to detail, and of respect for your hearers or readers. Sloppy spelling can lead others to suspect sloppy thinking! Misspelt words can complicate matters such as assembly instructions, news reports or legal documents.”

Seventy years on from your win in 1954, what do you think is better about America today versus then?

William: “‘Now’ vs. ‘then,’ many people are materially better off. Medicine has made great progress — also communications and transportation. Educational advancement is (usually) more available and more egalitarian, despite obvious deficiencies and shortcomings. Some old prejudices persist, but some others have died. We need to sustain respect for physical work and vocational skill; one doesn’t need to be a spelling champ to be a good carpenter!”

Are there any words from the 1950s you miss, and think deserve a comeback?

William: “Some of my favored words from the 1950’s are ‘integration,’ ‘gracious living,’ ‘disarmament’ and ‘co-existence.’ They’ve perhaps fallen out of fashion, but are as relevant today as they were then.”

What’s your favorite word and why?

William: “My favorite word is love because love should be everywhere all the time.”

At 84, how do you keep your brain sharp when it comes to spelling?

William: “I am always fixed on the accuracy in what I read and if I see a misspelled word I get very annoyed! I also use a dictionary and look up words.”

To inspire us all, can you give us a few words that, in spite of your being a Spelling Bee champion, still catch you off-guard and you need to double-check?

William: “Anaphylaxis, lackadaisical, pusillanimous, and tintinnabulation. The problem I have with these words is that they involve substitution of vowels or double consonants.”

If you aren’t familiar with these words either, Babbel has again prepared the following definitions:

  • Anaphylaxis — an acute, life-threatening hypersensitivity disorder
  • Lackadaisical — showing little enthusiasm and effort
  • Pusillanimous — timid, or lacking courage
  • Tintinnabulation — a ringing or tinkling sound
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