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Why Is It Called a ‘Spelling Bee’?

The origin of the word “bee” is still up for debate. It might come from the name of the insect, or it might come from a Middle English word for volunteering, but either way, it goes back to old-time social gatherings.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #624

A long-time listener in Prague named Jiří asked why spelling bees are called bees. What is a bee?

The most common explanation is that we can trace it back to the buzzing insects. Bees are cooperative and social; they live and work together in a hive, and people seem to perceive them as always working. As far back as the 1500s, people were saying busy workers were “as busy as bees.”

Hundreds of years later, the word “bee” was being used to describe events like quilting bees, and husking bees, where people would get together to do work like those buzzing, cooperative, and social insects. Although a spelling bee is more of a competition than a social working group, it still took on the name, maybe because it was a social activity for the community and spelling seemed like work.

That’s the origin in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Online Etymology Dictionary. Unfortunately, Merriam-Webster and The American Heritage Dictionary give a different origin for the “social work gathering” meaning of “bee.”

Those sources say that “bee” comes from the Middle English word “bene,” which described the voluntary help you give to neighbors such as farmers who need to raise a barn or husk a lot of corn.

It seems the origin of the word “bee” is still up for debate, but either way, it goes back to old-time social gatherings.

Other fun phrases that use the word “bee” are “the bee’s knees,” “a bee in your bonnet,” “bees and honey,” “to make a beeline for something,” and “to put the bee on someone.”

The Bee’s Knees

I covered “the bee’s knees” almost three years ago, but for those of you who weren’t listening then or don’t remember, it’s 1920s slang that means something similar to “delightful” that was part of a group of similar phrases based on animals such as “the cat’s pajamas” and “the monkey’s eyebrows.”

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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