Back in the day, long before the invention of spell-check and the popularity of texting, I was an excellent speller. Not to brag (well, maybe just a little), but I aced almost every spelling test put in front of me as a kid; I even won a school-wide spelling bee. Now I rely more on the squiggly red line under my typed words to tell me what’s right and wrong. But though my once laudable spelling skills have fallen a bit by the wayside, at least I can still take some pride in my spelling bee wins … or so I thought, until I saw 2010’s winning word: “stromuhr.” It makes my own winning word, “vacuum,” look like foolish child’s play in comparison.
Clearly, I wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s spelling bee competitions. A fourteen-year-old named Anamika Veeramani spelled a word at the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee that a twenty-five-year-old named Vicki (me) had never even seen in print before. Still, maybe I haven’t gotten stupider with time after all, because if the National Spelling Bee’s evolution over the years is any indication, the rules for being a spelling champ have become much stricter.
From “Knack” to “Stromuhr”
The nine contestants in the country’s first national spelling bee, in 1925, would be shocked at how much it’s grown. The 2010 competition boasted 273 spellers—the most in the event’s history—who won regional, Scripps-sponsored bees all over the country. In fact, the ever-growing number of contenders is one of the main reasons why the word-difficulty level has greatly surpassed that of “vacuum.” “The words are getting harder because the level of competition has risen,” Paige Kimble, the director of the National Spelling Bee, told the publication Education Next in 2010.
To see firsthand the increasing toughness Kimble referred to, check out the winning words from the first few decades of the Bee. (Scripps took over the National Spelling Bee in 1941.)
Considering that the contest is limited to the eight-to-fifteen age range, these words are fairly challenging. However, they’re nothing compared with the winning words of the last ten years. Could you define most of them, let alone spell them?
The average eight- to fifteen-year-old probably couldn’t spell any of these words, which is why today’s competitors are far from average. Of the 2010 competitors, 102 speak a language other than English; in fact, twenty-one of them don’t even call English their first language. Dedicated spellers often study languages like Latin and Greek to understand the roots of words so that they have a better chance of spelling the unfamiliar ones correctly. Asking the language of origin is one of the questions contestants can pose to the official pronouncer during their 2.5-minute time constraint, along with definition, use in a sentence, part of speech, and different pronunciations.
More Eyes Lead to a Bigger Prize
Studying tough languages like Latin and Greek might seem like a surprisingly serious pursuit for thirteen-year-olds (the average age of the 2010 competitors), but the National Spelling Bee is serious business these days. ESPN has broadcasted the live finals since 1994, but now it shows the preliminaries, semifinals, and finals live. This year’s final event drew four million viewers, beating the Stanley Cup finals’ game four by almost one million. To keep that many people tuned in, the words have got to be pretty impressive, which is another reason why the Bee’s difficulty level has increased every year. But to keep kids invested in the contest as well, the prize has to be equally impressive.
So what did the 2010 champ, Veeramani, win for her hard work and spelling prowess? She went home with $30,000 in cash, as well as an engraved trophy, a $2,500 savings bond and complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, a $5,000 scholarship from Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, and $2,700 worth of reference goods from Encyclopedia Britannica. The runners-up don’t fare too badly, either: second place gets $12,500, third place earns $7,500, and even just making it to the preliminaries will get you $100 and a commemorative watch from Scripps. Not a bad reason to take up Greek or Latin at an early age, huh?
Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks the words have gotten ridiculously hard. Four people in bee costumes showed up outside the event (held at Washington, D.C.’s Grand Hyatt) this year to protest the difficulty of English spelling in general, promoting phonetic spelling—“enuf” instead of “enough”—as a way to encourage literacy. I think that’s going too far, but I do wonder if presenting young kids with such a challenge puts too much pressure on them. Then again, they stand to make over $35,000 in a single day if they succeed, whereas all I got for my elementary-school wins was a hearty pat on the back … On second thought, maybe these words don’t seem nearly hard enough.