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.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

11 Little-Known Words for Specific Family Members

iStock.com/kali9
iStock.com/kali9

The words we use for family members in English are specific about some things, and vague about others. Our vocabulary marks a distinction between our mother and her sisters (some languages use one word for mother and maternal aunts), but doesn't say whether siblings are older or younger (some languages have different words for brother and sister depending on their age relative to you). We lack words that pick out particular family members (we have cousin, but what about child-of-my-father's-brother?) as well as certain general terms (we have siblings for brothers-and-sisters, but what about nieces-and-nephews?)

If you look hard enough, you can find some words to help fill in the gaps. Here are 11 unusual English kinship words for family members.

1. Patruel

This one means "child of your paternal uncle." Also, a child of your own brother. It hasn't gotten a lot of use in the past few centuries, but it was once convenient to have a term for this relationship because it factored into royal succession considerations. The first citation for it in the OED, from 1538, reads, "Efter his patruell deid withoutin contradictioun he wes king."

2. Avuncle

Your mother's brother. Latin distinguished between patruus, father's brother, and avunculus, mother's brother. (There was also amita, father's sister, and matertera, mother's sister.) It's the root of the word avuncular, meaning "having to do with uncles" or "uncle-like" (i.e., kind and friendly, like an uncle). You won't find the word avuncle in the dictionary, but it has been used in anthropology texts and in papers concerning royal matters.

3. Niblings

Your nieces and nephews. You won't find this in the dictionary either, but use of this term seems to be growing among favorite aunts and uncles who want an easy way to refer to their little bundles of sibling-provided joy in a collective or gender-neutral way.

4. Fadu

Your father's sister. Latin amita covers this relationship, but we don't have to reach that far back to find an English equivalent. Old English made a distinction between aunts and uncles depending on whether they were maternal or paternal. We lost all that when we borrowed the more general aunt and uncle from French.

5. Modrige

"Your mother's sister," from Old English.

6. Fœdra

"Your father's brother," from Old English.

7. Eam

Your mother's brother. It survived in some dialects as eme, with a more general meaning of uncle or friend, into the 19th century.

8. Brother-uterine

Your half-brother from the same mother. This is a term used in old legal documents or other discussions of inheritance and succession. Half-siblings of the same mother are uterine and of the same father are consanguine.

9. Brother-german

Full brother, sharing both parents. Nothing to do with Germany. The german here is related to germane, which originally meant "of the same parents" and later came to mean just related or relevant.

10. Double cousin

Full first cousin, sharing all four grandparents. This comes about when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, among other circumstances.

11. Machetonim

The parents of your child's spouse. Your child's in-laws. Ok, this is a Yiddish word, but one that, like a lot of Yiddish words, has poked its way into English because it fills a gap. When it comes to marriage, this can be a very important relationship, so it’s good to have a word for it. If your parents get along with their machetonim, the family—the whole mishpocheh—will be happier.

This story was republished in 2019.

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