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Spelling bee

Q From Dan Flave-Novak: The American institution known as the spelling bee has been getting a lot of attention recently — why is this competition named after a stinging insect? Or is it?

A It used to be assumed that a bee in this sense was indeed named after the insect, an allusion to its social and industrious nature. But these days the experts prefer to point instead to the English dialect been or bean. These were variations on boon, once widely used in the sense of “voluntary help, given to a farmer by his neighbours, in time of harvest, haymaking, etc” (as the English Dialect Dictionary put it a century ago). It’s likely that the link with boon was reinforced by the similarity in names and by the allusion; perhaps also because at one time been was the plural of bee in some dialects (a relic of the old English plural that survives in the standard language in a few words such as oxen).

Bee in this sense appears in the eighteenth century. It’s hard today to realise how interdependent people were in earlier times, not least on the North American frontier. Many annual tasks, such as the harvest, needed neighbours to help each other to get the crops in because no one farm had enough labour to do it alone; clearing land and barn-raisings were major communal efforts; families without the skills for some task could call on neighbours through reciprocal arrangements. Bees were usually also social occasions, of course, with food and entertainment provided to reward people for their help, and sometimes also to an extent competitive to keep people working.

There were many sorts of bees during the year. Several acquired their own fixed and standard names, such as apple-bee (picking and storing apples), paring-bee (peeling apples), husking-bee (husking ears of corn, also a shucking bee or a corn-shucking bee), knitting bee, quilting-bee, and raising-bee (for barn raisings). These start to appear in print from the 1820s and are common by the middle of the century. Others handled sheep shearing, haymaking, threshing corn, and spinning wool. In the early 1870s, the idea of bee began to be extended to situations that had a communal basis, but weren’t farm work. Early examples were disquieting: hanging bee (1873) and lynching bee (1879), with whipping bee arriving in the 1890s.

Informal spelling contests among neighbours or in schools had long been held for recreation or instruction or as tests. They came to be called spelling matches, which appears in the US in the first third of the nineteenth century:

A big spelling match is announced in Covington, Ohio, at the High School, when the lad that stands longest on the floor and spells the biggest words without scratching his head is to receive a fine present.

Jamestown Journal (New York), 26 Jan 1831.

The term spelling bee for such contests is first recorded 19 years later, though the writer’s comment makes clear the term is older:

Those who have attended a “spelling-bee” — and what reader who ever went to a district-school in the country but has attended them? — will call to mind a familiar and pleasant scene while perusing the annexed extract.

The Knickerbocker, Apr 1850.

In 1874, US local newspapers start to report public spelling matches or spelling contests with an admission fee and in which contestants competed for prizes. Some were run as part of vaudeville shows (one is advertised in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on 5 April 1875). Early examples were mostly in the eastern USA (Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania), but the idea soon spread westwards. It became a craze, often referred to as spelling fever. In March 1875, a local paper in Ohio reported that “The spelling fever is spreading rapidly”. The Oakland Daily Evening Tribune of California noted the following month that “The spelling fever is playing bob with our pet phrases; ‘too diaphanously attenuated’ is now the substitute for ‘too thin.’”

The term spelling bee soon starts to be attached to these public contests:

On Thursday evening last, your correspondent attended the much talked of “Spelling Bee” held in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, and enjoyed it exceedingly.

Bucks County Gazette (Bristol, Pennsylvania), 1 Apr. 1875.

A fortnight later the term has reached the UK:

The newest institution in the United States is the “spelling-bee,” which is a meeting, social or otherwise, for competition in spelling.

Liverpool Mercury, 12 Apr. 1875.

Less than a month later the Staffordshire Sentinel of Stoke-on-Trent reported that “On Monday evening an entertainment of novel, amusing, and instructive character, was given in the Temperance Hall, Dresden — a spelling match, or what the Americans call a spelling bee.” The craze became general this side of the big water for some while, at least according to Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of June 1876: “The spelling-bee mania has spread over all England, and attacked London with especial virulence.” But the term, though recorded a few times, soon died out in the UK: The Dictionary of Birmingham by Thomas Harman and Walter Showell of 1885 says that “The first ‘Spelling Bee’ held in Birmingham took place January 17th, 1876. Like many other Yankee notions, it did not thrive here.”

The popularity of the public spelling contest under the name of spelling bee was so great that it redefined bee for many Americans to mean a public knowledge contest of any sort. During the craze, other varieties were invented, including the historical bee and the geographical bee; reformulated as history bee and geographic bee these are still around, with math bee being added in the 1950s. Australians also know of working bees and busy bees for various kinds of communal activity.

As in the UK, the craze didn’t last long: as early as May 1875 the Daily Gazette And Bulletin of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, remarked that “The spelling fever has almost entirely subsided, and the buzz of the bee is scarcely heard any more.” This was premature, at least for other parts of the USA, but the evidence suggests it was not a long-lived fashion; spelling bees went back to being popular in a low-key way, as they had been before the craze erupted. The modern national contest dates from 1925.

In 1878, Bret Harte wrote a comic poem, The Spelling Bee at Angels, about one that took place among bored California gold miners in a bar, news of this new pastime having reached them all the way from San Francisco. It went splendidly until gneiss and phthisis turned up. It’s hard to think what they would have made of the winning word in the 2012 National Scripps Spelling Bee: guetapens.

Page created 18 Jun. 2005
Last updated 20 Apr. 2013

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Last modified: 20 April 2013.