25 Facts About the Scripps National Spelling Bee

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

Call it the Super Bowl of Spelling. This week, a record 516 pint-sized spellers are sweating out their ABCs in the Maryland Ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, hoping to be crowned the 2018 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. You may know how to spell “victory,” but here are 25 things you might not know about the country’s best-known gathering of logophiles.

1. IT WAS ORGANIZED BY A NEWSPAPER.

The National Spelling Bee was inaugurated in 1925 by Kentucky’s Louisville Courier-Journal as a way to consolidate a number of local spelling bees and generate “general interest among pupils in a dull subject.” (Cash prizes have a tendency to do that.) The E.W. Scripps Company didn’t take ownership of the Bee until 1941.

2. FRANK NEUHAUSER WAS THE BEE’S FIRST OFFICIAL CHAMPION.

Neuhauser, an 11-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, beat out eight other finalists to become the National Spelling Bee’s first champion. His word for the win? Gladiolus. Yes, the flower. On March 22, 2011, Neuhauser—a retired lawyer—passed away at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland at the age of 97.

3. IN 1926, PAULINE BELL BECAME THE FIRST FEMALE CHAMPION.

In the Bee’s second year, it declared its first female winner, Pauline Bell, who won by correctly spelling the color cerise. Bell kicked off a trend of female winners: Of the Spelling Bee’s 93 champions, 48 of them have been girls. This year, 45 percent of the competitors are girls.

4. THERE WERE NO WINNERS IN 1943, 1944, OR 1945.

That’s because the Spelling Bee was put on hold during World War II.

5. THERE WERE TWO WINNERS ON SIX OCCASIONS

Spellers Nihar Saireddy Janga and Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar hold a trophy after the finals of the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee
Alex Wong, Getty Images

Co-champions have long been a possibility at the National Spelling Bee, and were a reality in 1950, 1957, 1962, 2014, 2015, and 2016, when 11-year-old Nihar Janga of Austin, Texas, and 13-year-old Jairam Hathwar of Corning, New York, both walked away winners. To prevent this continuing trend, the Bee changed the rules in 2017 by requiring all of the spellers still standing at 6 p.m. on the Bee's final day to complete a written test to be used to break a tie.

6. THE BEE WAS FIRST TELEVISED IN 1946.

The Bee’s national finals were first broadcast live on NBC in 1946. Portions of the Spelling Bee have since been broadcast on PBS and ABC as well. But since 1994, ESPN has been the Bee’s biggest champion, broadcasting near-constant spelling action throughout the entire competition.

7. NO ONE REALLY KNOWS WHERE THE WORD “BEE” COMES FROM.

According to the folks at Scripps:

"The word ‘bee,’ as used in ‘spelling bee,’ is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for. A fairly old and widely-used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family.

"The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769 ... Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that."

8. MERRIAM-WEBSTER'S UNABRIDGED DICTIONARY IS THE SPELLING BEE BIBLE.

With more than 472,000 word entries, it’s the official dictionary [PDF] of the Scripps National Spelling Bee—and the only one that counts in terms of spelling.

9. KIDS ARE GIVEN A TOTAL OF TWO MINUTES TO SPELL A WORD.

The countdown begins when the pronouncer first pronounces the word.

10. “KNAIDEL” CAUSED A CONTROVERSY IN 2013.

 Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York holds his trophy as president of the E.W. Scripps Company Rich Boehne looks on after the finals of the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee
Alex Wong, Getty Images

In 2013, New Yorker Arvind Mahankali won the competition by spelling the word “knaidel,” another word for matzo ball. While a number of Yiddish speakers claimed that Mahankali's spelling was incorrect, the then-13-year-old's spelling of the word was the same as Merriam-Webster's, leading the event’s organizers to declare that there was no controversy at all.

11. A TRAFFIC LIGHT HELPS SPELLERS KEEP TRACK OF THE TIME.

Spellers have the benefit of viewing a monitor with a traffic light to keep track of time. For the first 75 seconds, the traffic light is green, followed by 15 seconds of yellow. At the 30-second mark, the light turns red and a countdown clock appears. Neither the judges nor the pronouncer can communicate with the speller once the monitor has shifted into “red light mode.”

12. PRONOUNCER DR. JACQUES BAILLY IS A CHAMPION SPELLER, TOO.

For the past 16 years, Dr. Jacques Bailly has served as the Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer, and was an associate pronouncer for 12 years before that. But his history with the Spelling Bee goes back even further—all the way back to 1980, when he won the whole shebang at the age of 14 by correctly spelling elucubrate.

13. DR. BAILLY DOESN’T PLAY FAVORITES.

“I always want them to get all the words right,” Bailly told TIME in 2009 about sympathizing with the entire lineup of spellers. “I think that's a lot of the fun of the spelling bee—you root for everybody. And I try to make it clear to the spellers that I'm there to give them absolutely every possible thing that I can to help them—within some limits.” In fact, it’s part of Bailly’s job to help the speller. If he has some word information that he senses could be helpful to the speller, he can offer it up without the speller requesting it.

14. THEY TAKE “THE GIGGLE FACTOR” INTO ACCOUNT.

In a 2003 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Bailly admitted that in the days leading up to the final event, Spelling Bee officials review every word for a final time and take into account something they call “the giggle factor,” explaining that “A word like ‘titillation’ might cause a sixth-, seventh- or eighth-grader to giggle.”

15. THE FIRST RULE OF THE SPELLING BEE WORD COMMITTEE IS YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE SPELLING BEE WORD COMMITTEE.

 Despite misspelling his word, Ronald Walters of Onalaska, Wisconsin, is high-fived by his fellow competitors during the third round of the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center May 30, 2018
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Though there is a committee of officials who approve all the words that will be used in any year’s competition, “The first rule of the committee is not admitting that you’re on the committee,” Bee spokesman Chris Kemper told TIME in 2013. “The committee is the secret sauce of the spelling bee and the identity of those on the committee will not be revealed.”

16. BUT DR. BAILLY IS A MEMBER.

“It is true that Jacques is on the word committee,” Kemper admitted to ABC Denver in 2014. “But beyond that, the members of the team and their process is secret.”

17. MISSPELLINGS AREN’T THE ONLY CAUSE FOR DISQUALIFICATION.

In addition to clearly misspelling a word, there are four other reasons a speller can be disqualified. These include not approaching the microphone when it’s the speller’s at-bat ("unless there are extenuating circumstances that, in the judges’ sole discretion, merit holding the speller’s word in reserve and offering it to the speller after all other spellers in the round have spelled and before the close of the round"); engaging in “unsportsmanlike conduct”; altering the letters or sequence of letters in the process of retracing a spelling; or uttering “unintelligible or nonsense sounds” during the spelling process.

18. THE SPELLING BEE REQUIRES MORE THAN JUST SPELLING.

In 2013, vocabulary questions were added to the preliminary rounds, a move that was met with criticism by some, who believe that a spelling bee should be a test of one’s spelling ability only. But the Bee’s executive director, Paige Kimble, says the change in procedure is one that helps reinforce the Bee’s educational purpose. “What we know with the championship-level spellers is that they think of their achievement in terms of spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin,” Kimble told the Associated Press in 2013. “These spellers will be excited at the opportunity to show off their vocabulary knowledge through competition.”

19. PAIGE KIMBLE AND DR. BAILLY GO WAY BACK.

When Dr. Bailly became the Spelling Bee champion back in 1980, it was Kimble (then known as Paige Pipkin) who he defeated. But all was not lost: She won the very next year, and has been working with the organization in a professional capacity since 1984.

20. “SCHWARMEREI” HAS KNOCKED OUT TWO FINALISTS.

 David Tidmarsh peers over his placard as his final opponent, Akshay Buddiga, spells a word during the National Spelling Bee June 3, 2004
Matthew Cavanaugh, Getty Images

This German origin noun, which means excessive sentimentality, has knocked out two finalists in recent years, once in 2004 and again in 2012. The former incident happened to 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga, who famously fainted on stage in the middle of spelling alopecoid earlier in the competition, only to get up and spell the word correctly.

21. "CONNOISSEUR" IS A WORD TO ANTICIPATE.

The French origin noun is the most frequent word on the Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists.

22. GOOD SPELLERS MAKE GREAT SCIENTISTS.

Jeffrey Blitz, who directed the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound about the National Spelling Bee, told TIME how he observed that many Spelling Bee finalists go on to have careers in science and medicine. “Something about the kind of brain that’s not intimidated by the dictionary in childhood seems well-suited to the work of medicine in adulthood,” he noted.

23. MORE THAN ONE-FIFTH OF THIS YEAR’S SPELLERS ARE BEE VETS.

Of 2018's 516 competitors, 113 of them—nearly 22 percent—have competed previously at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

25. SIVASAIPRANEETHREDDY DEVIREDDY IS THIS YEAR’S YOUNGEST SPELLER.

 Competitors walk past the championship trophy on display during the third round of the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center May 30, 2018
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 2017, 5-year-old Edith Fuller became the Bee's youngest-ever speller. This year, 8-year-old Sivasaipraneethreddy Devireddy (Speller #383), from Mooresville, North Carolina, is the youngest competitor.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2014.

5 Odd Suggestions About How To Fight the Dust Bowl

It was a disaster of mankind’s own making. By the 1930s, chronic overfarming in the Great Plains had devastated the native grasses that had held topsoils in place. As the plants were uprooted, the dirt dried and loosened, setting the stage for an environmental catastrophe.

In 1931, a drought hit the region—it would last eight years—and the exposed soil was blown away by a series of gigantic dust storms. Mountain-sized dirt clouds became a common sight all over Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico. Nobody who lived there had ever experienced anything like it: skies were blackened, barnyards were buried, and millions of farmers became homeless refugees. As the crisis raged on, people piped up with some wild ideas about how to finally put an end to this “dust bowl.” Here are five of the most peculiar suggestions.

1. PAVE OVER THE GREAT PLAINS.

Many well-meaning citizens assumed that if they could just cover up the loose dirt somehow, it would stop getting blown around so much. New Jersey’s Barber Asphalt Company reached out to the federal government and offered to pave over the afflicted area. Their price? Five dollars per acre. Sounds like a bargain—until you consider the fact that the dust bowl had engulfed around 100 million acres. Meanwhile, a Pittsburgh steel manufacturer wanted to install wire netting over multiple counties, and a company known as Sisalkraft proposed blanketing the ground with its rugged brand of waterproof paper. A similar idea involved laying concrete down over every field in the region and leaving a few holes for future crops.

2. COVER THE TERRAIN WITH BROKEN-DOWN CARS.

One North Carolinian’s suggestion ideally would have killed two birds with one stone. As environmental historian Donald Worster wrote in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, “Mrs. M.L. Yearby of Durham, North Carolina saw an opportunity to beautify her own state by shipping its junked autos out to the plains to anchor the blowing fields.”

3. BOMB THE SKY.


Getty Images

Explosives expert Tex Thornton tried ending the drought with dynamite. In a sales pitch given to the citizens of Dalhart, Texas, he explained that if the explosive was launched skywards and detonated aerially, immediate rainfall would follow. Embracing Thornton’s idea, the town gave him $300 to cover his expenses. Judgment day came on May 1, 1935, when the would-be hero set up shop by a local lake. Thousands of curious onlookers watched from afar as Thornton tied balloons to his dynamite sticks, which had been fitted with timed fuses.

Things quickly went awry once a violent dust storm arrived on the scene. The high winds made it too dangerous for Thornton to even think about releasing the explosives, especially now that a crowd was present. So in a last-ditch effort to deliver the goods, he buried his dynamite and set it off under the ground. Thornton’s Plan B backfired spectacularly: The blast just propelled extra dirt into the dusty atmosphere.

After a few more attempts, rain did come to Dalhart—as well as in regions too far away to be affected by his explosions. A victorious Thornton left Dalhart supposedly saying, “I’m mighty glad that the people of Dalhart and the Panhandle got moisture—and if I had anything to do with it, I’m doubly glad."

4. USE DEAD REPTILES AS YARD DECOR.

Contemporary folklore claimed that if you hung a deceased snake belly-up over a fence post, it would rain the next morning. When all else failed, some farmers actually tried this during the dust bowl years. Ironically, live snakes would have been far more useful to them. Back then, famished jackrabbits regularly turned up in droves to devour the few crops that were still being grown on the Great Plains. In western Kansas, the situation was so bad that citizens responded by organizing what became known as “jackrabbit drives.” Those involved formed huge lines and marched side-by-side for miles on end. Using their own bodies, they’d corral every rabbit in sight into an enclosure and club them to death. Yet if the species’ natural predators—like certain snakes—had been a bit more common, this drastic measure might not have been necessary. Who knows?

5. BRING THE RAIN WITH A FAUX MILITARY BATTLE.

Many of the more intense showdowns in the American Civil War, including Gettysburg, were followed by severe rainfall. This and other accounts over the years helped give rise to the once widespread belief that artillery caused downpours—a notion that was still fairly pervasive in the 1930s (and was broadly the same hypothesis that Thornton was working with).

One soldier from Denver petitioned the federal government for $20 million worth of ammunition, after which he would round up 40,000 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for a couple of phony battles. After some non-lethal cannon fire, the rains would return—or at least, that was the plan.

“Try it, if it works, send me a check for $5000 for services rendered,” wrote the soldier.

This story originally ran in 2016.

10 Fun Facts About Corgis

iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya
iStock/Lisa_Nagorskaya

You already know they’re cute, compact, and smart. But there’s a lot more to these beloved little dogs that you might not know. 

1. THERE ARE TWO DISTINCT BREEDS OF CORGIS.

There are two types of Welsh corgis: the Pembroke Welsh corgi and the Cardigan Welsh corgi. They are considered two entirely different breeds because they come from different ancestors. Their remarkable resemblance is a result of crossbreeding in the 19th century.   

If you’re trying to tell the two breeds apart, the most notable difference is that the Pembroke does not have a tail. On top of a tail, Cardigan Welsh corgis also have rounded ears, while Pembrokes generally have pointy ears. 

2. THE CARDIGAN WELSH CORGI IS THE OLDER BREED.

Photo of a Welsh Corgi Cardigan
iStock/Silense

A warrior tribe of Celts brought the corgis in their aboriginal form to Cardiganshire, Wales around 1200 BCE, which means corgis have been in Wales for over 3000 years. This early breed was a member of the Teckel family of dogs that went on to include the dachshund. 

3. PEMBROKE WELSH CORGIS HAVE A CONSIDERABLE HISTORY AS WELL.

welsh Corgi Pembroke sitting in autumn leaves
iStock/HelenaQueen

Although no one knows for sure, most agree that the Pembroke Welsh corgi dates back to 1107 CE when Flemish weavers migrated to Wales. The Spitz-type dog bred with the original Cardigan corgis to produce the Pembroke Welsh corgis we know today. 

4. THE KENNEL CLUB ORIGINALLY LUMPED THE TWO BREEDS TOGETHER.

The two types of corgis were registered as one in 1925, leading to a lot of stress among breeders. Often a judge would favor one breed over the other, which would lead to controversies at dog shows. After nearly a decade of (pretty adorable) strife, the breeds gained separate recognition in 1934. 

5. CORGIS WERE ORIGINALLY USED AS HERDERS.


iStock

The Welsh used the short dogs as herders as early as the 10th century. In those days, pastures were considered common land, so there were no fences. In order to keep a farmer’s cattle together and separated from other herds, corgis would nip at their legs to herd them. Because of their closeness to the ground, corgis had easy access to the cows’ ankles and were difficult targets of the retaliatory kicks of cattle. 

6. ACCORDING TO WELSH LEGEND, FAIRIES RIDE THEM.

Some say that the corgi is an “enchanted dog” favored by fairies and elves. At night the magical creatures would use the dogs to pull their carriages and be their steeds in battle. According to legend, the markings on a corgi’s coat suggest the faint outline of a saddle and harness. 

7. THE ROYAL FAMILY LOVES THE PEMBROKE WELSH CORGI.


Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II has had more than 30 corgis in her lifetime. Though her last two corgis—Whisper and Willow—have both recently passed away, she does still have two dorgis (corgi/dachshund mixes) named Candy and Vulcan.

The Queen met her first corgi when King George VI brought a male pooch home from a kennel in 1933. Named Dookie, the dog was an immediate hit with the future queen and her sister, Princess Margaret. 

After a second corgi named Jane entered the picture, the canine couple had a litter of puppies, two of which were kept. The Queen received another dog named Susan for her 18th birthday—from there, the collection of corgis really gained momentum. Some of the royal corgis bred with Princess Margaret’s dachshund Pipkin to create dorgis.

8. CORGIS WERE USED TO PREDICT PRINCESS CHARLOTTE'S NAME.

In the spring of 2015, when Prince William and Kate Middleton were awaiting the birth of their second child, people are already taking bets on the name. Gambling company Ladbrokes used corgis in an attempt to predict what the name would be. The company’s ad featured 10 corgis wearing vests with different names in a race to predict what the name of the child would be. The corgi sporting the name Alexandra won the race. Princess Charlotte was born on May 2, 2015.

9. CORGI MEANS "DWARF DOG" IN WELSH.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, cor means dwarf and gi means dog.  

10. SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOSTS A ENORMOUS CORGI MEETUP.


iStock

SoCal Corgi Beach Day started as a humble meet-up event at Huntington Beach in 2012. The first event attracted just 15 dogs; the last one had more than 1100 corgis in attendance. The event happens three times a year.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

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