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Words that win spelling bees

Words that win spelling bees

So, you think you’re good at spelling do you? How would you fare with autochthonous, appoggiatura, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, Laodicean, stromuhr, cymotrichous, and guetapens? If you can successfully spell words like these, then maybe you should consider entering the annual Scripps Spelling Bee. From 27 to 29 May, 281 spellers from across the United States, selected from tens of thousands of entrants eliminated in the regional bees, do battle for the honour (or should that be honor) of being crowned Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion.

These ‘Winning Words’ (words which were correctly spelled by the winners of previous contests) are considerably more taxing than the word that led to Charlie Brown’s elimination from the Scripps Spelling bee in the film A Boy named Charlie Brown. Having won his school spelling bee in a rare moment of success, Charlie Brown crashed out of the national contest when he incorrectly spelled beagle ‘b-e-a-g-e-l’, all the more embarrassing of course since his dog Snoopy is a beagle. 

From gladiolus to Stromuhr

The Scripps Spelling Bee began in 1925; comparing these recent winning words with those that catapulted the earliest victors to fame is striking. In 1925 Frank Neuhauser won the competition by correctly spelling gladiolus; subsequent winning words included such relatively straightforward spellings as fracas, knack, torsion, and intelligible. In addition to their relative orthographic simplicity, these words also differ from more recent winning words in being ones that competitors are likely to have heard of and be able to spell without special study. None of the recent winning words could be considered common, all are derived from foreign languages and belong to specialized and technical registers. Appoggiatura is a musical term derived from Italian, serrefine is a French-derived medical term to describe a surgical clip, while Ursprache is a German philological term meaning ‘proto-language’. Stromuhr, successfully spelled by the 2010 winner Anamika Veeramani , is a device used to measure the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery .

A knaidel by any other spelling

Whatever the outcome, the organizers of the 2014 contest will be hoping to avoid the controversy that followed Arvind Mahankali’s victory at last year’s event. Having finished as runner-up for the previous two years, 13-year-old Mahankali successfully spelled the word knaidel to take the first prize. But this spelling was challenged by linguists who argued that the correct spelling of this Yiddish loanword, referring to a type of dumpling eaten during the Jewish Passover, should have been kneydl. Mahankali was untroubled by such discussions; he claimed his prize and went off to do his physics homework. If you know your knaidel from your kneydl and are thinking of applying for 2015, then can you spell its plural?

Spelling challenge

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