Why We Love a Spelling Bee

It's spelling bee time! The Scripps National Spelling Bee, the spelling competition that consolidated an array of local bees way back in 1925 and is now the nation's largest and longest-running educational promotion — having paused only during World War II — is back.

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It's spelling bee time! The Scripps National Spelling Bee, the spelling competition that consolidated an array of local bees way back in 1925 and is the now nation's largest and longest-running educational promotion — having paused only during World War II — is happening in National Harbor, Maryland, as we speakll. (Fun fact: In 1925, Frank Neuhauser won with the word gladiolus; last year Snigdha Nandipati won with guetapens.)

You probably know what to expect: You've seen it in Spellbound, and on the local and national news this time of year; you've watched the YouTube videos with amusement, joy, and occasional horror. It's edge-of-your-seat-suspense, and the stakes are high. Kids (281 of them, all under 15, the youngest of whom is 8) have studied all year long and usually longer to learn words that we adults don't use much in our daily lives (take guetapens, or words like lucarne, brankursine, voortrekker,, and bobbejaan, the following four of which were all presented to spellers during today's preliminary rounds). The competitors skilled and lucky enough to make it to the big Bee — because it's about the word you get, too — must now pit their wits and their memories against each other in front of the world and spell their hearts out. Sometimes those kids have success, and sometimes they do not, to their (and our) great, heart-wrenching disappointment, which is not to say that the kids disappoint. They're all champs just getting there, but oh, we feel their pain when they miss a word. Fortunately, we also feel their joy (and the unbridled joy of their siblings) when they get it right:

I mean! If you don't get a little weepy/smiley at the sight of a spelling bee champion, you're a rock.

It might be easy to say that in this day and age we don't need spelling. Sure, we have plenty if methods by which we can check our spelling, methods that don't have to live in or come from our own brains. It is likely that very few people reading this post have ever found the occasion to say (much less spell on their own) guetapens. And it's true, sometimes it seems we've accepted that spelling and related things like punctuation and grammar don't matter, or don't matter as much as they used to. There's no time, or because we're writing online we can fix it afterward or not to bother to fix it at all, maybe, and instead simply move on to the next thing. Everybody makes mistakes, and as we see more mistakes, maybe we just get numb to it all. People are frequently bemoaning that no one cares about spelling, grammar, copy editing, and proofing, and even further, how language is on a slippery, sloppy slope to chaos and disaster.

But of course, that's not true at all. As long as people do care — and spelling bees tell us people care, spellers tell us they care, dictionaries and even commenters who point out errors tell us they care — spelling remains important. Even if people don't care, spelling is important, and not just for the practice, the dedication to something. It's not simply because the rather mathematical aspect of putting letters together in the proper way can help one know the very definition of that word. It's not just because one letter can change something entirely (see public vs. pubic). It's because spelling is a key to understanding. Adherence to spelling and grammar is a way we can ensure that our meanings and messages don't get lost or clouded by, say, a typo, a bit of mistaken grammar, a misspelled word. You want people to understand what you want them to understand, right? Then spelling, among other things, does indeed matter.

But, even if you don't care about spelling, you have to care even just a little about kids who care this much about spelling. Sure, it's not a real-life scenario; they're not likely to go on to be spelling bee professionals like official Bee pronouncer Dr. Jacques Bailly (whom four spellers name as the person they'd most like to meet), but why does that matter? As The New Yorker's Ben Greenman tweeted, "People say that the Spelling Bee is artificial, but is it any more artificial than much of the work that adults do?" I'd argue it's less artificial, at least emotionally so. In a world in which many of our "feelings" are based on entertainment that's orchestrated or somehow fake, i.e., reality TV, the emotion present at the Bee is real. The participants in the Bee are not yet cynical; they don't cage or feel ashamed of their feelings or their commitment — just watch them react! We reacted like that once, too. Maybe we can harness that emotion and innocence, still, when we watch the Bee.

The stakes are even further raised this year with a new vocabulary portion that currently takes place off-stage via computer, a change announced in April to the consternation of many. And that's not all. As Ben Zimmer writes at Vocabulary.com, "in yet another wrinkle to this year's proceedings, the semifinalists will again take a computerized test before the televised spelling begins on Thursday on ESPN." Tomorrow, the Bee will bring 50 remaining spellers to the semifinal rounds, and those remaining to the finals. By the end of a long day, a winner will be crowned, to walk away with the title of champion, a trophy, a $30,000 cash prize, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond from Merriam-Webster, and $2,000 worth of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica. Try to catch a little, or follow @ScrippsBee on Twitter to see who's spelling what right and wrong. It will make you feel better about the future of our words.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.