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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
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

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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Words
21 Fancy Medical Terms for Mundane Problems
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Your health issues might be mundane, but that’s no reason to be boring. Give your complaints some interesting heft with these fancy medical terms for commonplace problems.

1. Limb falling asleep

That numb feeling that you wake to when you’ve slept on your arm wrong is obdormition. It is followed by a pricking, tingling sensation called paresthesia.

2. Ice cream headache

Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Say it five times fast to warm up your mouth and relieve the brain freeze.

3. Muscle twitch

If you ever feel the sudden flutter under your skin from a small bundle of muscle fibers spontaneously contracting, you can say you’re experiencing fasciculation (from fasciculus, “little bundle”).

4. Corn

That callus on your foot may be soft, in which case it’s a heloma molle. If it's hard, it's a heloma durum.

5. Tongue bump

One tiny, swollen taste bud looks like no big deal in the mirror, but feels distractingly humongous in your mouth. It has a big name to match that big feeling: transient lingual papillitis.

6. Ingrown toenail

If you want to go Greek, it’s onychocryptosis (“hidden nail”), but if you prefer Latin, stick with unguis incarnatus (“nail in flesh”).

7. Canker sores

Aphthous stomatitis. Hard to say even without canker sores.

8. Cheek biting

You know how sometimes you bite the inside of your cheek by accident, and then you get that little ridge of tissue that sticks out so that you end up biting it again and again? That’s morsicatio buccarum, baby.

9. Getting the wind knocked out of you

This feels bad, but doesn’t last very long. Just a transient diaphragmatic spasm.

10. Hiccup

The more rhythmic diaphragm action of the hiccup is a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.

11. Sneeze

Why sneeze when you can sternutate?

12. Eye Floaters

What are those little transparent threads you can see floating across your eyeball when you pay close attention? Just muscae volitantes (“flying flies”) the name for the little bits of protein or other material in the jelly inside your eye.

13. Bed wetting

If you wet the bed at night it’s nocturnal enuresis. If you have accidents during the day it’s diurnal enuresis.

14. Fainting

If you faint at the sight of blood or upon hearing some shocking news, it’s probably vasovagal syncope, an automatic response mediated by the vagus nerve. Tightly laced corsets only make it worse.

15. Dizzy from standing up fast

If a dizzy, head rush feeling is brought on by standing up too fast, it’s orthostatic hypotension.

16. Growling stomach

All that rumbling and gurgling in the stomach and guts goes by the name borborygmi.

17. Goose bumps

The Latin horrere originally referred to bristling, or hair standing on end, a sense captured by the word for goose bumps, horripilation.

18. Nose running from eating spicy food

When you’re sniffling while you’re spooning in that spicy soup, you’ve got gustatory rhinitis.

19. Joints making noise

All that popping, creaking, and cracking of joints when you get out of bed in the morning goes by the name of crepitus, from the Latin for “rattle, crack.” The word decrepit goes back to the same root.

20. Shin splints

People aren’t very impressed by shin splints, but they might be impressed by medial tibial stress syndrome.

21. Hangover

Overdid it last night? Just explain to your boss that you’ve got a bit of veisalgia. This fancy word for hangover was coined in a 2000 paper in a medical journal. It combines the Norwegian word kveis (“uneasiness following debauchery”) with the Greek word for pain.

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