The History and Glory of the Spelling Bee

If you love the spelling bee or are just curious about how it works, you'll enjoy this interview with Paige Kimble, the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Mignon Fogarty
8-minute read
Episode #623

A picture of a little girl at a spelling bee

Mignon Fogarty talked with Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, to learn the history of the bee, why people are so drawn to spelling bees, why it’s hard to make sure the words are of equal difficulty, and what glory awaits the winner. 

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Grammar Girl: Paige, thank you so much for talking with me today during the busy, busy bee week.

Paige Kimball: You’re welcome! Thank you. Glad to join you.

GG: Sure. So, I’m especially interested in the history of the spelling bee. I have this vague feeling that it has something to do with Noah Webster. So, can give me a history of how we got spelling bees?

PK: Yes, so what we know is that several hundred years ago, even just a few hundred years ago, there was a lot of disorder in our language. There were so many different ways to spell words and Noah Webster is the person who stepped in and decided to impart some order in standardization to our language. People welcomed the order that he brought to it and from that arose spelling bees. What we know historically is it arose originally as a party game, a social event, for adults. Over time, it filtered down into the schools for children and then in 1925, the National Spelling Bee was founded.

GG: Oh, how neat. So, it’s almost come full circle because I know now the American Copy Editors Society meeting has a spelling bee, for fun, at their annual convention, and I think even some bars have spelling bees, so adults are getting into it again!

PK: Yes, they do! And I’m often asked, “Why is this?” and if you think about it, it’s because everyone who is literateand happily, that’s most of uswe spell all the time, every day, often hourly. So, it’s somewhere between a game and a requirement of functioning in our language. When you see a spelling bee on television, or when you’re asked to be a part of one, it’s one of the most accessible things you can do, because we do it all the time.

GG: Right, and so it seems to me that the spelling bee is a much bigger event than it was when I was a child. Can you talk to me about the growth of the National Spelling Bee as the event that it’s become?

PK: Yes, so the first National Spelling Bee that was in 1925 involved spelling champions from nine cities. It grew steadily for several decades, all the way up to the early eighties, when, actually, our pronouncer Dr. Bailey and I were spellers in the bee and there were about 112 national finalists, then. Over the course of the eighties, the number of national finalists doubled and so did the opportunities for kids everywhere, across the nation to participate. And with the doubling of the number of kids participating in the bee at the local and national level, there came stiffer competition and a bigger spotlight. The bee began to be broadcast on ESPN. That, by the way, was 25 years ago. And so, more and more people have become familiar with it, it’s required more prestige, a higher level of pop culture status, along with it. It’s an interesting journey that the National Spelling Bee has been on.

GG: Neat. And I always thought of it as a national event and I have international listeners to the podcast and I was looking at your website and I saw that you had a winner from Jamaica a few years ago. Are international students allowed to participate?

PK: Our records indicate that the first time we had a student participate in the national finals who resided outside the United States was in 1976. He was actually an American, his parents were missionaries in Brazil. Over the course of, oh, a couple of decades, on a very nonstrategic basis, the Bee began accommodating more American children who were living abroad. Those children attended international schools with children from many different nations and they said “we want to do the spelling bee too,” so all of a sudden we were welcoming children from these international schools where we had initially made accommodations for American expats. Coinciding with that, too, has been the global trend of English language learning. An interesting stat—this actually comes from the British Council—is that by 2020, there will be almost 2 billion people in the world speaking or learning English. Only 350 million of them, roughly, are in the United States. There are just so many people around the world learning English and when you learn English, you play games with the language. One of the most accessible games is a spelling bee. So yes, we do hear from people all over the world.

GG: Wonderful. So, one thing I’ve always wondered when I watch the bee is, how do you ensure that the words are of approximately equal difficulty in one round? Is there a word rating system, or something like that, that makes sure they’re all even?

PK: You’ve touched on probably our most challenging task. Here’s the deal—what is difficult to one person may not be difficult to another. That’s because our culture, where we live, our basis of experience, and our personal interest, govern what we consider difficult. It’s more than just the link of the word, the number of symbols, the language of origin…I’ll give you an example. I grew up in El Paso, Texas. If you were to ask me to spell the word “frijoles,” I would think that was an easy word. If you were to ask a child, let’s say from Vermont, to spell “frijoles,” it might be more challenging. When we as an organization go about the business of trying to level-set the words, it’s a challenge because we don’t know to whom the words are going to go.

GG: Right. Is there any kind of general consensus about what makes a word especially hard to spell, or does it depend on the person, like you said?

PK: Well, it can depend on a child’s basis of experience. Sometimes it can be the length—keeping everything straight can be a challenge. Sometimes, the one-syllable four or five letter words are actually the most difficult and sometimes, the words that have no known origin are also very difficult because spellers come to rely on discerning the language of origin to figure out if there’s a spelling pattern from that language that they can apply to their spelling.

GG: Oh, that’s interesting. It must be such a great, life-long, skill that kids are building as they study the origins of words, and etymology, and patterns in different languages. You know people who play Scrabble, competitive Scrabble, sometimes it’s almost as much about rote memorization or math as it is about spelling. Do you find that there are strategies of studying that relate to the words and their meanings themselves, or do the winners tend to hardcore memorize everything? What are the different spelling strategies that students use to prepare for the bee?

PK: That’s a great question. What we know is that usually how a speller studies evolves over time. Most begin with a teacher handing out a list of words and they say, “A spelling bee's next week. This is our word list.” A child goes home and goes about the business of memorizing and then asks mom or dad to drill them on the spelling. That is what people think of when they think of people participating in the spelling bee. That’s the kind of studying activity that goes on at the school level, the county level, but kids who are at regional bees and do well at the national finals, have to step it up to a different level. I’ve yet to meet the child who’s said, “I’ve memorized the dictionary.” I’m still waiting for that to happen. So, they have to devise shortcuts. Sometimes many shortcuts—learning Greek and Latin roots and learning about how spellings take place in different languages that have contributed to the English language. If you were asked to spell in the Scripps National Spelling Bee a word of German origin, you know how German spellings appear, and you’re going to apply that knowledge. Or if, let’s say you were asked to spell “Andouille,” as in “Andouille sausage” and you ask Dr. Bailey, “What’s the language of origin?” and he says, “French.” You’re going to have a pretty good idea of that because it is from French and it has that “ouille” ending on the end, it’s probably “I-L-L-E.” These are the things that the national level champion spellers do to fast-track themselves to the highest levels of competition.

GG: That’s wonderful. Actually “Andouille” is a word I had a terrible time spelling once when someone gave me a recipe verbally, so that’s a very funny example. Very, very soon we will know who this year’s winner is! Can you tell me what glory awaits the winner? How does winning change a child’s life?

PK: Well, winning is all about getting recognition for hard work. The winner will be someone who has dedicated a very long period of time to study on a disciplined basis. They’ve really put in their hours, put in their work. When you do that, you want a good pat on the back. They’re going to get a huge pat on the back from national media and local media. They’re going to go to New York City and appear on “Live with Kelly.” They’re going to go out to LA and appear on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and so much more. They’re going to get a lot of recognition. They may be called upon by, let’s say, the nearest major league baseball team near their hometown, to come and throw out a pitch at a game this summer. They might ask to be the grand marshal of a parade. They’re going to have a lot of fun, unique experiences along the way and they’re going to carry that with them for the rest of their lives.

One thing we find is commentary from people during Bee Week is “When will these kids ever use these words again? These are ridiculous words from the nether regions of the English language. Why are you doing this to kids? What’s the value?” What people need to know as they watch the national finals on television, is that 11 million kids across the nation entered the contest this year and what you are seeing on television involves the top ten, top fifty, of those 11 million. That’s roughly the top zero, zero, zero, zero, I could go on with more zeroes, point-two-six percent of the participant speller population. So, all those great words that kids need for vocabulary, college, and careers are now being offered at the regional bee level. It’s a really good new story for the nation—that all those great words that kids need to know are being learned and offered to kids at the regional bee level, so by the time you get to the national final, the only way you’re going to produce a champion is to go to the nether reaches of our language.

GG: Thank you so much for talking with me today about the bee. I can’t wait to see all the kids compete and find out who the winner is in the end!

PK: Same here! I just want to thank you for all your contributions to our bee hives newsletters. The teachers love them. So thank you, thank you, thank you for doing that for us.

Thanks again to Paige Kimball, the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. If you’re wondering what she was talking about at the end, I’ve been providing Grammar Girl tips for their teachers Beehive email newsletter for years because I love the Spelling Bee and I love the Spelling Bee mission, in general.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.