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Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

20 Winning Words From Past National Spelling Bees

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Thursday, June 1, 2017, the world's best young spellers will assemble together under one roof to determine which one (or two) will be crowned champion of the 90th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. While we breathlessly await that moment, let's take a look back at some of the most interesting winning words from years past.

1. GLADIOLUS // 1925

The word (a type of flower) is notable not due to its complexity, but because it was the first-ever winning word.

2. ALBUMEN // 1928

The white part of an egg.

3. PROMISCUOUS // 1937

We just like the idea of an eight-year-old asking the judge to use "promiscuous" in a sentence.

4. CRUSTACEOLOGY // 1955

The study of crustaceans, of course. Doesn’t it just roll off the tongue?

5. SYLLEPSIS // 1958

This is a complicated definition: “A figure of speech in which one word simultaneously modifies two or more other words such that the modification must be understood differently with respect to each modified word.” Say what? How about an example from Dorothy Parker: “It’s a small apartment. I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.” There’s also the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman”: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

6. SMARAGDINE // 1961

Of or pertaining to emeralds, or having the color of emeralds. “What beautiful smaragdine eyes you have.”

7. ESQUAMULOSE // 1962

Not covered in scales or scale-like objects; smooth-skinned. Can we bring this one back? “Hey, Jessie. You’re looking especially esquamulose today.”

8. MACULATURE // 1979

Paper waste and printed materials not intended for reading, a.k.a. junk mail. You might consider those five L.L. Bean catalogs you never signed up for maculature.

9. ELUCUBRATE // 1980

To produce by long and intensive effort, especially in reference to literary work.

10. ODONTALGIA // 1986

The next time you have a sore tooth, impress your dentist by telling him you’re suffering from odontalgia. It’s just a fancy word for toothache.

11. ANTEDILUVIAN // 1994

Ancient, antiquated or supremely dated. Have a friend who’s hitting a milestone birthday soon? Up the ante by referring to them as “antediluvian” instead of the totally overdone “over the hill.”

12. VIVISEPULTURE // 1996

The act of burying someone alive. Famous people terrified of being buried alive—also known as taphephobia, another great spelling word—included Hans Christian Andersen, George Washington, and Frederic Chopin.

13. EUONYM // 1997

A name well suited to a person, place or thing.

14. CHIAROSCURIST // 1998

Chiaroscuro is a style of monochromatic shading used in art.

15. SUCCEDANEUM // 2001

A substitute or replacement for something else, especially in reference to medicine.

16. PROSPICIENCE // 2002

Foresight.

17. POCOCURANTE // 2003

Apathetic or indifferent. Even though you’re not studying for the SATs anymore, maybe you should be a little less pococurante about expanding your vocabulary.

18. URSPRACHE // 2006

A hypothetically reconstructed parent language; Proto-Germanic would be one.

19. GUETAPENS // 2012

This word, which is defined as an ambush or trap, fortunately didn't ensnare 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati, who went on to become that year's champion.

20. KNAIDEL // 2013

A small controversy followed the 2013 Spelling Bee, which 13-year-old Arvind V. Mahankali won by spelling knaidel, which is a type of dumpling that's often eaten during Passover, exactly as we just spelled it. But Yiddish experts said the Bee was wrong; traditionally, the word is spelled as kneydl.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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