The obscure words of the Spelling Bee

This year’s national Spelling Bee competition ended on Thursday and, to no one’s surprise, the winner was once again an Indian-American. All but three winners since 2002 (and every one since 2008) have had Indian-sounding names. I have written many times before about the Spelling Bee, expressing my view that it seems like a colossal waste of time and effort by children and their families spent in learning to spell obscure words that they will likely never encounter again in their lives, apart from the fact that they could always simply look it up if they needed to.

The words the 16 finalists spelled correctly before getting eliminated illustrate what I mean about the obscurity of the words. They were in the following order: Millefleurs, Paucispiral, Ascyphous, Diploe, Uraeus, Clausewitz, Heautophany, Orrisroot, Marseilles, Plumetis, Thymiaterion, Serac, Dereistic, Escamotage, Escamotage, and Tychopotamic. Of all these words, the only ones I knew were Clausewitz and Marseilles. The words that were used to eliminate 14 of the last 16 contestants were: kanone, carmagnole, pavillon, vinhatico, paillasson, cabalassou, loratadine, funest, perduellion, fourrier, cento, gelinotte, philonium, aalii, and illustra. I knew none of these.

That left just two contestants. One of them got the word bewusstseinslage and spelled it wrong. The other person got the word koinonia and won. Oddly enough, although I would have got eliminated very early, I did know the winning word. It is a word with religious connotations that, according to Wikipedia, “identifies the idealized state of fellowship and unity that should exist within the Christian church, the Body of Christ”. It was the name of an obscure journal that I was familiar with way back in the days when I was religious and read such stuff. But here we see the big role that luck plays in this format where each person gets a different word, in that if you get a particularly tough word you can get eliminated even if you happen to be the best speller.

Reader Jeff sent me an article that describes the amount of time the contestants and their parents spend on preparation. Jeff also pointed me to articles that say that this has become a big business. You now have coaches that sell their services at $200 per hour and require students to memorize 90,000 words or courses that charge $3,450 for 16 one-hour sessions via Skype.

I have also written before about why it is that Indian-Americans, and even more narrowly South Indian Americans, have dominated this contest. One the appalling facts is that there are other contests that are open only to children of Indian and South Indian ethnicity whose purpose is to prepare students for the national Bee completion and where they get valuable practice in the conditions they will encounter. These families already tend to be well-to-do professionals, often with one stay at home parent who can help the student even more. Giving them an extra leg up purely based on their ethnicity seems very wrong to me.


  1. says

    I hate the way things have to get turned into a competition. It just becomes another thing for parents to cheat on, and kids to get traumatized over. I know it’s important to raise kids as good little red in tooth and claw capitalists, but how about some co-op events?

  2. blf says

    Marseilles (with the terminal s) is now perhaps generally considered an obsolete spelling. The modern French spelling, Marseille, is now frequently preferred, albeit in the past, perhaps when the name become commonly known in English, the French did sometimes spell it with the ultimate s.

  3. says

    Back in ’07 I took a class on mnemonics with Banachek. and he mentioned that mnemonic tricks are what spelling bee people should study, not vocabularies.

    Events where a computer dramatically and easily out-performs a human are always(?) going to devolve into questions of “how do we keep the computers out?” That’s problem for the event. For one thing it eventually means it’s just a demonstration of dwindlingly-relevant human skills.

  4. jrkrideau says

    Spelling bees do seem like a waste of time. Though, I am prejudiced. I have always been a lousy speller in English and experience in school spelling bees did not help. Even a good spell-checker on my computer often cannot make any sensible guess at what I was trying to type.

    I have come to the conclusion that English spelling is so arbitrary that we seem about one step removed from Chinese ideograms—an exaggeration but I suspect not that much.

    On the other hand, a good French dictée competition is great fun to watch on TV and, the knowledge displayed, probably, is still of value to people writing French in a literary or academic situation. It is very disconcerting to see your francophone colleague pouring over a Bescherelle as she writes a letter.

  5. spitzmutt says

    Andrew Jackson:

    “It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word.”

  6. cartomancer says

    I got a few of them -- mainly the ones that come from semantic fields I am familiar with (Uraeus from Egyptian royal ceremonial, Thymiaterion from Greek religion, Perduellion from Roman law, Cento from late antique and medieval literature) and could sort of guess at a few more based on their Greek or Latin roots (I guessed that Ascyphous would mean a dinner table without cups on it, where it’s actually a botanical term meaning a plant without cup-shaped structures, and Dereistic meant “concerning real things”, rather than a mental condition of dissociation from reality).

    To my eyes these sorts of competitions are ruined when you prepare for them and learn long lists of words specifically for them. Same for professional quizzers who learn lists of facts. Perhaps it’s the old-fashioned English ethic of the gentleman amateur in me that is slightly offended by this -- there just seems something deeply wrong about putting so much effort in purely for competitive purposes. I’ve always thought of these things as demonstrations of native ability and knowledge picked up in the course of everyday life, not of who has wasted more energy on rote learning than everyone else.

  7. rgmani says

    One the appalling facts is that there are other contests that are open only to children of Indian and South Indian ethnicity whose purpose is to prepare students for the national Bee completion and where they get valuable practice in the conditions they will encounter.

    The excuse given by the North-South foundation for not letting anyone other than Indian-Americans participate is that they are an all-volunteer organization and that their resources are stretched thin as it is. I believe the South Asian Spelling Bee organizers have said something similar as well.

    I don’t want to judge these organizations too harshly because they are caught between a rock and a hard place. Indian-Americans are something like one percent of the US population. If they opened these competitions up to everybody, they would be dealing with potentially a hundred times as many applicants. In order to cater to even a fraction of the potential demand, they would have to stop being an all-volunteer organization and start hiring full-time employees.

    However, I agree that given the insane success that Indian-American kids have had over the past 20 years in the spelling bee, having a minor league dedicated to them alone, does look quite ugly.

    -- RM

  8. file thirteen says

    I’d like to see spelling bee rules changed so that it is the spellers that are required to give the correct definitions of words before attempting to spell them. Multiple definitions could be provided to choose from if that’s too hard. Purists might quail but if the speller doesn’t already know the word, who cares if they can guess the correct spelling?

  9. Mano Singham says

    file thirteen,

    While what you say sounds logical, it will end up destroying these children’s lives even more by them now memorizing definitions as well.

  10. jack19 says

    I posted a comment about this blog post a short while ago, but it hasn’t shown up. Hopefully it didn’t get lost or anything but just needs to be approved.

  11. jack19 says

    Actually, I could try posting this again . . .

    Excellent blog post. The spelling bee is, and always has been, about the wrong things. It’s all about 1) making money for Scripps Howard and b) entertaining an audience. It has never been about finding the best speller. If the organizers wanted to find the best speller, everyone would spell the same words—they obviously don’t CARE who the best speller is. As it is, luck plays a huge role. The kids are an afterthought (if they’re thought of at all)—they’re just being used to feed this mindless competition.

    In the “USA Today” article that you linked to, there’s another link about the son of the 1985 champion trying to win the contest this year. Excuse me? Do these NSB winners have any real brains at all, or just robot brains? You’d think that, after 30 years, the 1985 champion would realize, “You know, this is a stupid contest at best—and at worst, it abuses kids. I wasted countless hours on something so trivial. I’ve learned that now, and I don’t want my son to have any part in this contest. I want him to focus on things that matter.” But no, 30 years later, he still hasn’t gotten a clue! Wow, pretty sad.

    Anyway, as we all know, this competition is merely about bragging rights for the parents, not the kids. The kids would probably rather be doing anything else. Sadly, the motto of the parents seems to be: “Childhood? Who needs that?”

    A far better activity for most of these kids would be to learn a foreign language. If they like memorizing, have them memorize the 2000 most common words of that language. Typically, if you know those words, you will be able to understand a high percentage of what you read in that language, and an even higher percentage of what you hear in conversation. And those are IMPORTANT words that will stick with you, not obscure trivia.

    Although the following article is not about the spelling bee, it does sum up the parental abuse behind it pretty well:

  12. file thirteen says

    @Mano #9

    Is memorising definitions as well as spellings worse than memorising spellings of obscure words alone? I was assuming the children were already made to memorise as much as they possibly could. I had hoped the additional difficulty of requiring to know what the words meant would enable the more abstruse words to be relegated back to the obscurity they deserve.

  13. EigenSprocketUK says


    It is very disconcerting to see your francophone colleague pouring over a Bescherelle as she writes a letter.

    ooh, ooh oooh! Unlike my autocorrect, I know that one: it’s “poring”. But to my shame, I’d never heard of a Bescherelle.

  14. Mano Singham says

    file thirteen @#12,

    I do understand your logic and I sympathize with your goals. But I am much more pessimistic. I think that this tournament emphasizes quantity over quality and spectacle over actual spelling skill. Having a judge rule on whether a definition is acceptable (which will inevitably result in challenges) is less dramatic than everyone immediately knowing whether the student got it right or wrong.

    What is likely to happen is that another cottage industry will spring up that will contain lists of words and the shortest possible definition of those words that will pass muster with judges and then students will mindlessly memorize that combination. As an example, when teaching physics I sometimes ask students what ‘density’ is. Quick as a flash comes back the answer “mass per unit volume”. They all know that. I then ask them to tell me what density is but without using the word ‘per’. You’d be amazed at how many student are flummoxed. And this is at the college level. This is because they don’t know what density means, they have just memorized a definition.

    Your system might result in a few of the more obscure words initially being eliminated but over time the list will grow. When you look at how the winning words have become much more obscure over time, there is no reason to think that the process will not get repeated with definitions as well.

  15. expatriarchy says

    jack19 says: You’d think that, after 30 years, the 1985 champion would realize, “You know, this is a stupid contest at best—and at worst, it abuses kids. I wasted countless hours on something so trivial. I’ve learned that now, and I don’t want my son to have any part in this contest. I want him to focus on things that matter.”

    Things that matter like…sports. I must have missed the comments where children of football players are criticized for following in their fathers’ footsteps.
    Why not accept that just perhaps the 1985 champion was actually proud of his accomplishment? And saw value in the discipline fostered by working towards a goal? And encouraged his child because he himself benefited from sticking to a task and achieving a goal? Also you are assuming abuse here while sports-mad parents are a widely acknowledged phenomenon.

    This comment reminds me of how colleges move goalposts. Every time Asian-American kids show high achievement in a field colleges take pains to state how just that kind of “rote” effort is passe and they are now looking for something different. And that something is always orthogonal to what these kids are excelling in.

    I actually agree with Mano about the corruption of this once innocent activity. It is yet another example of what happens when you make competition rather than cooperation your operating principle. Competing with one another is useful only if the resulting hierarchy is a desired result.

  16. jrkrideau says

    @ 11 EigenSprocketUK
    Blast it, I had the feeling that “pouring” looked wrong but, as mentioned above, I’m a lousy speller and the spell checker passed it. It was spelt correctly even if it was the wrong word!

    I can write about the wright who has the right to his own rite.
    Who says it is difficult to learn to read and write (rite, wright,…,?? whatever) English?

    @ Mano
    I thought I recognized “Millefleurs” until I realized my love of sweets had led me astray and I was thinking of “millefeuilles”.

  17. rgmani says


    The spelling bee contestants are in fact quizzed on definitions. This is done in a written round that is not televised. This year’s round was the hardest one yet and no one managed to get everything correct. Typically the best spellers are also the ones who score the highest on the written vocabulary quiz -- that was the case this year as well.

    You and several others on this board seem to assume that the whole thing is entirely driven by parents and that the kids are being forced to do this. While I have no doubt that some parents force their kids into this activity, I am quite confident that the majority of kids do this because they enjoy it. I do not recall seeing any former spelling bee participant talk of how they were forced into participating by their parents and how traumatic the experience was. On the contrary, everyone I have seen talk about how they enjoyed the experience and many continue to be associated with the spelling bee well into adulthood.

    I have a little experience with spelling bee -- my older daughter was interested for a while. She never attended any of the Indian/South Asian bees -- just her school spelling bee which she won and then went on to the regional where she got eliminated fairly quickly. Even though I am of the opinion that the spelling bee is a pointless activity, I found that helping my daughter prepare was a surprising amount of fun for both of us. I don’t know what would have happened if my daughter’s interest in spelling bees had persisted. As it turned out, she decided to prioritize other activities and the whole spelling bee thing petered out.

    -- RM

  18. jack19 says

    expatriarchy says:

    “Things that matter like…sports. I must have missed the comments where children of football players are criticized for following in their fathers’ footsteps.”

    Are you actually equating spelling bees with sports?

    1) Tell me—have you ever heard of a basketball bee, or a tennis bee? I can’t think of any sports that are inherently unfair—spelling bees are. The bee format, which is extremely old-fashioned, is inane.

    2) Are sports set up so that kids lose in humiliating fashion? Not typically. At spelling bees, you hear the infamous “ding,” walk off the stage, and then feel like a total loser. It’s completely humiliating. And it’s not something you easily forget either.

    3) If you’re good at sports, you may end up winning a full scholarship to college. And then you could potentially play sports professionally, or become a full-time coach. In other words, you could end up making a good living at your sport. Do you know of anyone who got a full “spelling” scholarship? And do you know of any professional spellers? And even though there are some spelling coaches out there it seems, making a living off the spelling bee is still extremely uncommon. In other words, the spelling bee is mostly a huge waste of time.

    The spelling bee has about as much utility as a hot-dog eating contest. Just as stuffing themselves wouldn’t be good for the health of kids, stuffing their heads with obscure words is in my opinion just as bad for their emotional/mental health.

    “Why not accept that just perhaps the 1985 champion was actually proud of his accomplishment? And saw value in the discipline fostered by working towards a goal? And encouraged his child because he himself benefited from sticking to a task and achieving a goal?”

    I can accept that. And why not accept that he’s still as myopic to the serious problems of the spelling bee as he was when he was a kid? On the other hand, I’ve heard of some very successful athletes who have said that they wouldn’t encourage their kids to go into sports. Or at the very least, they’ve said they wouldn’t push them—if the kids want to do it on their own, it’s up to them.

    “Also you are assuming abuse here while sports-mad parents are a widely acknowledged phenomenon.”

    Well, I’m also calling the contest itself abusive. It abuses kids for entertainment value. The goal has never been to find the best speller—it’s mainly show biz. It’s just an inherently unfair contest. You make one mistake, and your whole season is over. Do you know of any sports in which, if you make one mistake, your whole season is over????

    “It is yet another example of what happens when you make competition rather than cooperation your operating principle. Competing with one another is useful only if the resulting hierarchy is a desired result.”

    I agree with this. In general, I’m against competition for kids. But if you’re going to do it, the contest at least needs to be fair, and shouldn’t humiliate the kids.

  19. jack19 says

    Oh, one more thing. When I said, “Things that matter,” I wasn’t referring to sports at all. I meant things like learning for the joy of learning, doing the normal fun things of childhood (such as playing with friends), etc. I would never encourage a kid to go into competitive sports.

  20. jack19 says

    I have a book called “Complete & Utter Failure.” It has a whole chapter (actually, almost a fourth of the book) devoted to the ills of the spelling bee. I thought it might be instructive to type up a few snippets to disabuse (no pun intended 🙂 ) the notion that the spelling bee is some benign, feel-good activity:
    Chapter 3 Shiver Like Rhesus Monkeys
    Institutionalized Failure
    The author presents the horrifying ritual of the National Spelling Bee, a distillation of the myriad ills of the American education system, in which millions of otherwise intelligent children are subjected to failure in a most public and humiliating fashion. . . .

    [A certain school principal] is no spelling-bee booster: “They’re public and traumatic and I don’t like them very much,” she says and then tells this story:

    “I had a bee at a school district where I was principal. There were maybe twenty kids in the bee. We got down to the last four children. One of the little girls, I gave her a word, and she misspelled it. She became so frantic she ran from the stage into the audience, into her parents’ arms . . . We continued then, and I gave the next word. She turned around and, in front of two hundred people, screamed at me: ‘THAT WORD IS EASIER THAN THE WORD YOU GAVE ME!’ It was terrible.” . . .

    What the spelling bee means is that kids are always duped by the adult world. Society’s values—its fetishes, passions, fear and hatred—are imprinted upon children, like wet clay accepting the design of seashells, both beautiful and plain. Some flack at Scripps-Howard half a century ago decided to wed their corporate name to this sort of high-toned, skewed and pedantic endeavor, and the result was this curse, handed down through generations by the UNTHINKING [emphasis mine] to poor children who, desperate to succeed at *something*, have the misfortune to try to excel at so nugatory an enterprise as this. They might as well be reciting the digits of pi, for all the good that knowing how to spell [obscure words] is ever going to do them.
    [end of excerpt]

    The little girl in the story above illustrates, about as well as anything could, the abuse that kids suffer in the spelling bee. Why would any parent ever want to enter their kid in such a warped contest?

    So, what’s the solution? Well, I would never be a big fan of spelling contests anyway, but at least if everyone had to spell the same words, that would be fair. In a big competition, have everyone spell the same 100 words. The winner would have the highest total. Or if there’s a tie, give the top finishers 20 more words (all of them spelling the same words), and break the tie that way. If necessary, keep doing that until you find a winner.

    How would they accomplish this without using a written test? I don’t know. But surely there’s a way to do this. If not, it’s better to have no contest at all than an unfair one.

    Anyway, I stand by the idea that kids are better off learning a foreign language in a regular way—and it should be enjoyable. How many people who’ve learned another language ever considered it a waste of time?

  21. Ted Landau says

    Here’s a very chilling example of parental abuse related to the spelling bee. I’m sure there are many others who never make the news. The girl who placed SECOND in the 1995 Scripps National Spelling Bee, Marjory Lavery, and her siblings were severely abused by her father, Thomas Lavery, in connection with the spelling bee:

    “He also is accused of threatening to kill Marjory Lavery, now 18, when she lost in the final round of the 1995 Spelling Bee in Washington. According to prosecutors, her mother and other family members had to restrain Lavery after Marjory, 13 at the time, misspelled “cappelletti” — a kind of pasta — and came in second.”

    “Marjory Lavery has also told police about being forced to lick spilled food off her father’s shoes and living in constant fear of his temper. Failure could mean punches to the head or mandatory head butts against a wall, she said.”

    “Marjory Lavery told the judge that she still considers her father to be a ‘sadistic and mean man.'”,4088156&dq=home-schooled+death+%7C+abuse+%7C+torture+%7C+neglect&hl=en

    “”The father of five home-schooled children with a knack for doing well in spelling bees was accused of abusing them when they lost, threatening to kill one daughter who came in second in the 1995 national bee.”

    “Lavery also allegedly refused to let his daughter Kathleen, now 14, eat, sleep or use the bathroom when she finished second in a local spelling bee earlier this year, according to court documents. Kathleen is receiving post-traumatic stress counseling and has been placed in a foster home, authorities said.”

    “In another incident, Lavery is accused of forcing one of his daughters to disrobe so ice could be applied to her body to ward off any bruises from a beating. Another time, when a daughter failed to meet Lavery’s expectations, a soda can was smashed against her head, prosecutors said.”

    She and her siblings were home-schooled.

    “Summit County prosecutor Michael Callahan said this week that Thomas Lavery’s need for his children’s success drove him to torture them and even threaten to kill them when they didn’t meet his expectations.”

    “Callahan said the abuse may have gone unnoticed a lot longer had it not been for a school administrator who filed a complaint after Kathleen Lavery, who wanted to participate in group sports, began attending public schools this year.”

    ““I don’t want to get in the middle of the home-schooling controversy,” Callahan said. “But home schooling may have exacerbated a situation with a very obsessed individual.””

  22. jack19 says


    Thanks for posting that. Yes, I had heard about Ms. Lavery years ago. Apparently her dad turned all his kids into super-high achievers, even in events outside the spelling bee. But when she was asked if she was proud of her spelling accomplishments, she said something like, “Not really. It was all done out of extreme fear. There was no fun or joy in any of it.” Basically, she and her siblings were treated like slaves.

    She also said that she and her siblings would joke that, when standing at the mic about to spell a word, they should say something like, “Well, I sure hope I get this word right, or else when I get home, my father is going to beat the he** out of me!!!!”

    My biggest problem with the bee, though, isn’t the deranged parents, as scary as they are. I think the spelling bee fools so many people. How many actually *understand* that the goal of the spelling bee isn’t to find the best speller, but rather to provide public entertainment?? The kids certainly don’t. And sadly, the parents seem clueless as well. It’s as if they’re “spellbound” (no pun intended). It seems that most people involved with the spelling bee meet the description from the book excerpt in post #20 as “unthinking.” They just blindly support the bee, and strangely enough, it never seems to occur to them to ask questions like these: “Is the format of this contest fair?”; “Does it treat the kids kindly?”; “Is this really a beneficial activity for kids?”; “What does this activity do to the kids’ self-esteem?”; “Are the kids happy or frustrated?”; “Is it worth spending so much time on an activity with such narrow scope?”; “Is this contest more about luck or skill?”; “Are there other, better ways that the kids could be spending their time?” And so on.

    Concerning the excerpt from the book, there’s something else the author discusses as well. Whenever a bee drags on (i.e., after 90 minutes or so), the organizers usually get impatient and start bringing out the “killer” words designed to “slay” the contestants. The goal is to give the remaining contestants words that they have very little chance of spelling correctly, just so that the organizers get to go home. Isn’t that cruel and selfish?

    Interestingly enough, there was one big change in the spelling bee this year—the number of spellers nearly doubled. Now you can petition to get to the national finals even if you don’t win your regional contest. I think that’s actually a *good* thing, because in the past, some regionals were insanely difficult, whereas others were relatively easy. What that meant was that many amazing spellers never got a chance to compete in the NSB, even though they were a lot better spellers than the winners of the easier regionals. I’m not clear about who pays for these new spellers to go the bee, though.

    Unfortunately, I think the National Spelling Bee is pretty much hopeless. It’s a dinosaur that’s probably never going to change significantly or go away. I think the best that we can do at this point is educate others. That’s why blog posts like these can be so beneficial. If enough parents read about the problems of the spelling bee, maybe they’ll say to themselves, “I really don’t think I should enter my child in the spelling bee after all.” And maybe this sentiment will spread to their friends, who are also parents. Perhaps some kids will eventually pick up on the problems as well. If even a small number of kids are spared from the pointlessness (at best) and the heartache (at worst) of the spelling bee, then I’d say our efforts to point out the serious problems of the bee haven’t been in vain.

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