25 Facts About the Scripps National Spelling Bee
Call it the Super Bowl of Spelling. This week, 285 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 2015 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.
It 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 girl winners: Of the Spelling Bee’s 89 champions, 47 of them have been girls. This year, 51 percent of the competitors are female.
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 FOUR OCCASIONS.
Co-champions are a possibility at the National Spelling Bee, and were a reality in 1950, 1957, 1962, and in 2014, when Sriram Hathwar from Painted Post, NY and Ansun Sujoe from Fort Worth, TX both walked away winners.
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. WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY IS THE SPELLING BEE BIBLE.
With more than 472,000 word entries, it’s the official dictionary of the Scripps National Spelling Bee—and the only one that counts in terms of spelling.
9. “KNAIDEL” CAUSED A CONTROVERSY IN 2013.
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 spelling was incorrect, Arvind’s spelling of the word was the same as Webster's Third New International Dictionary's, the only spelling that matters in the competition, leading the event’s organizers to declare that there was no controversy at all.
10. KIDS ARE GIVEN A TOTAL OF TWO MINUTES TO SPELL A WORD.
The countdown begins when the pronouncer first pronounces the word.
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 13 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.
Though there is a committee of officials who approve all of 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 he defeated (then known as Paige Pipkin). But all was not lost: She won the very next year, and has been working with the organization in a professional capacity since 1984—including the past 18 years as executive director.
20. “SCHWARMEREI” HAS KNOCKED OUT TWO FINALISTS.
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. ONE-FIFTH OF THIS YEAR’S SPELLERS ARE BEE VETS.
Fifty-seven of this year’s 285 spellers—an even 20 percent of them—have competed previously at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In 2014, 27.8 percent were returning spellers. But Vanya Shivashankar (a.k.a. Speller No. 90) is this year’s most experienced speller; this year marks her fifth appearance at the National Spelling Bee. The 13-year-old from Olathe, Kansas previously competed in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 (when she tied for 13th place).
24. THERE ARE THREE LEGACY SPELLERS IN THIS YEAR’S COMPETITION.
Three of this year’s spellers—including Vanya Shivashankar—are the siblings of previous champions. Vanya’s sister, Kavya, won in 2009. Speller number 153, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar, is the brother of last year's co-champion, Sriram Hathwar; and speller 159, Srinath Venkat Mahankali, is the brother of 2013 champ Arvind Mahankali.
25. CAMERON KEITH IS THIS YEAR'S YOUNGEST SPELLER.
Though there are three nine-year-olds in this year's competition, Cameron Keith—speller 28 from Boulder, Colorado—is this year's youngest, having celebrated his birthday in March, and the only third-grader.
This article originally ran in 2014.