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 …read more