Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Spelling Bee

8th Grade Graduates of Stafford County, Kansas, abt. 1915
As I polished this draft before posting it, my first act was to click on "Spell Check."  In a world where entire phrases are reduced to letters, like BFF and LOL, and where the ease of using Spell Check corrects most errors, being the best speller in the class holds less  prestige. 
However, in Isaac Werner's day, pride in winning the spelling bee meant something!  When classes were finally conducted in the new Emerson School (#33) that Isaac helped build, a few days after classes began Isaac recorded in his journal:  "Jan. 14, 1886.  Evening was to be 1st spelling bee in new school house."
Standardized spelling did not always exist.  Reading old documents with irregular spelling might mislead you to think the author was poorly educated; however, for Americans, it was not until Noah Webster published his book, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783, later called The American Spelling Book, that American spelling, pronunciation, and grammar gained an effective champion for standardization.  By the year of Webster's death in 1843, nearly 13 million copies of his spelling book in various editions had been sold, (many of which had blue covers for which his speller became known).  Sales following his death continued at a rate of about a million copies per year, remaining the favorite spelling book for nearly a century.  Of course, most of us know him because of his life's labor producing Webster's Dictionary.
As a result of spelling standardization, a new entertainment arose.  Spelling bees involved not only school children but also adults.  In his 2012 book The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall quoted  an unnamed historian who described an adult spelling bee in which the community watched "a school trustee standing with a blue backed Webster open in his hand while gray-haired men and women, one row being captained by the schoolmaster and the other team by the minister, spelled each other down."  You may visit Joshua Kendall's website at .

Competitive spelling matches continue, including the Scripps National Spelling Bee established in 1925.  Webster's (now Merriam-Webster) remains the dictionary used for the competition.  The 2012 winner was Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, California, and the winning word was guetepens.  You may visit to read more about this competition.

The Scripps website shows that in 1925 the winning word was gladiolus, in 1935 intelligible, in 1975 incisor, all words familiar to most of us.  The goals of Scripps include not only improving students' spelling but also improving vocabulary, and the winning words beginning in 2001 would certainly increase most of our vocabularies, including such words as succedaneum, autochtonous, and cymotrichous! Competitors must not be beyond 8th graders, and the 2012 national competition included the youngest ever--six year old Lori Anne Madison.  With Snigdha Nandipati's victory, she became the fifth winner of Indian descent in a row and the tenth out of the past fourteen years.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee inspired a popular movie, Akeelah and the Bee.  Teachers wishing to motivate student participation in the local preliminary spelling bees leading to qualification for the national spelling bee are encouraged to show their classes this movie, which is still readily available online and is sometimes shown on television movie channels. 

While most of us rely today on Spell Check to support our atrophied spelling skills, it is still Noah Webster and his intellectual descendants upon whom the programers of the electronic spell checker rely to make sure we spell our words in the American standardized way.

(The girl pictured in the 3rd row, 3rd from the left, among the County Graduates pictured above is my father's oldest sister, Verna Pauline Beck, 1902-1926.  Verna became a teacher and probably contracted tuberculosis from one of her students.  She was only 23 years old when the disease took her life.)


1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

TB killed a lot of people in Canada and USA. Wiped out and now making a comeback for the same reasons it was a killer in the first place.

Enjoyed the Spelling Bee post and recall doing that in school but no serious competitions though. My current spelling problems are more finger related than ignorance but there are still words that baffle me.