The dilemma the Spelling Bee faces


The National Spelling Bee contest has been going on since 1925. I went and looked at how the difficulty of the winning words has changed over the years. These are the last words that the winner has to get correct in order to clinch the championship, after all the other contestants have struck out.

In the first ten years of the competition, the winning words were: gladiolus, cerise, luxuriance, albumen, asceticism, fracas, foulard, knack, torsion, and deteriorating. Of these, only cerise and foulard were unfamiliar to me but I think I could have guessed the spelling correctly. These are words that one encounters in everyday use.

Now take a look at the winning words from the last ten years: appoggiatura, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, Laodicean, stromuhr, cymotrichous, guetapens, knaidel, stichomythia and feuilleton. I have never heard of these words before, have no idea what they mean, and my chances of guessing right for any of them would be very low. One is unlikely to ever hear them used except in highly specialized contexts.

So clearly the standards have changed. In any competitive event, one expects the standards to rise as people learn from the past and get better at doing whatever the contest requires. This is inevitable and in general a good thing. The problem the spelling bee faces is that the only way to raise the bar is to make the words more and more esoteric and thus become less and less relevant. Without changing the format of the test so that more ordinary words become relevant again, I think it is doomed to become even worse in the future, if you can imagine it.

I think there are ways to do that. One way would be to have all the students get the same set of more ordinary words and write down the spelling with only a limited time to do it. This not only would be fairer, it would give an advantage to those who read widely and would recall the spellings immediately because they knew them, rather than trying to recall what they had memorized.

But it seems like part of the appeal of this contest for spectators is the cruelty of watching a gladiatorial contest in which young students sweat and then flame out so things are unlikely to change as long as it is televised.

Comments

  1. DsylexicHippo says

    I know all about Knaidel. But that’s only because I stayed in Holiday Inn Express one night. Or, rather, I had a Jewish experience at a Holiday Inn Express one night. Full disclosure: My ex was Jewish. /BadJoke.

    A format that would have the ultimate ratings on US television: the winner gets a billion dollars and the losers get their heads chopped off. That format would work for any type of competition.

  2. Menyambal says

    Yay! I knew all the first ten. The last ten, I only knew one, from reading it once in an old book.

    You are absolutely right, that has gone too strange. The only way to know any of those is to spend ‘way too much time memorizing arbitrary fluff.

    This is very much like sports, now, with no use except to show one can do it. Gladiatorial is the word.

  3. Al Dente says

    I come from an Ashkenazi Jewish family and, like DsylexicHippo, I know what knaidel is (It’s also known as a matzo ball). I’m reasonably educated and fairly well read but I don’t have a clue about what any of those other nine words mean.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    The thing about the National Spelling Bee is that it has mutated far beyond its original intent. Spelling bees were created as a fun way to practice and/or show off what was once a valuable skill, but that was then and this is now. it’s like comparing a normal cooking show to any of Gordon Ramsey’s various exercises in humiliating aspiring cooks, or like comparing a normal boat race to the rule-strangled mess that is the America’s Cup. The only purpose of today’s National Spelling Bee is to declare one child a winner and thousands of others losers.
    If you want a contest that allows kids to display competence in some worthy endeavor, forget about spelling, that’s what computers and spell-check are for.

  5. Menyambal says

    The only skill left here is guessing at how a word is spelled, maybe. The last ten words look like something you could puzzle out, maybe. Which means the last few kids are taking chances, not really knowing how the word is spelled—it’s a coin flip who gets any word, and a coin flip on whether they get it right. Getting a single winner is a random selection out of the last few.

    And, dang, with computers in our pockets, who needs to spell big, hard words anymore? Confidence with words that we use every day will allow faster communication, so yay for spelling there. But big, obscure stuff? Anybody writing big words is going to be writing them on a computer, anyhow, with spell check and the internet right there.

    The spelling bee is a relic of the past, and brings out cruelties that should be things of the past. Shut it down.

    (Replace it with a cornhusking bee, and have the kids practice until their hands bleed. It’d be just as archaic and just as good for the kids.)

    (Heh. My tablet’s spell-check didn’t know “archaic”. But now it does.)

  6. says

    Ursprache and Stromuhr are obviously German, with the added difficulty that if you don’t know German it is impossible to know from the sound that the first “ur” means original and is therefore spelled without an H while the second one is “clock” in the general meaning of “instrument to measure something” and therefore spelled with an H
    Ursprache = the original language our ancestors must have spoken
    Stromuhr = device to measure how much electricity is used

  7. says

    Feuilleton, guetapens and guerdon are French.
    ‘Feuilleton’: a serial, initially of a novel but now TV serials too.
    ‘Guetapens’ means a trap, entrapment. (This one is tricky because it’s not even written as the original French word, which is ‘guet-apens’…)
    ‘Guerdon’ is a type of ornamentation, IIRC. It’s an old-fashioned word even in French. It really seems like they were going for maximum obscurity!

    ‘Laodicean’ now is Greek and means spartan, because Laodicea was another name for Sparta. It was introduced into modern languages from the Latin.

  8. vereverum says

    How about making it knowledge of language based. For example, the moderator clearly pronounces the word and if at all possible the word should conform to standard English pronunciation rules, then the contestant spells the word and all homophones then the contestant uses the word correctly in a sentence. Homophones may be used in separate sentences. And drop all those French words forced into the language by the Unpleasantness of 1066.

  9. A Jones says

    @Mano

    “I think there are ways to do that. One way would be to have all the students get the same set of more ordinary words and write down the spelling with only a limited time to do it. This not only would be fairer, it would give an advantage to those who read widely and would recall the spellings immediately because they knew them, rather than trying to recall what they had memorized.”

    I think that would be an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the spelling bee is not a logical contest or even really a contest about good spelling–it’s basically just a “Guinness Book of World Records” freak show. 🙁

    “But it seems like part of the appeal of this contest for spectators is the cruelty of watching a gladiatorial contest in which young students sweat and then flame out so things are unlikely to change as long as it is televised.”

    Exactly. And the format is completely ossified–the brain-dead organizers refuse to tinker with the inherent unfairness of the bee. First and foremost, the spelling bee is a show–a form of public entertainment, and an end in itself. If it loses its entertainment value, that would mean less TV coverage, which would mean less *revenue*, and the organizers aren’t about to allow that to happen. 😛 Ultimately, the organizers couldn’t care less about the kids–they just want to preserve their abusive contest.

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