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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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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

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