Spelling Bees Have Roots In The Renaissance

Melissa Block talks with lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, about the derivation of the word "bee" in "spelling bee." It turns out it has nothing to do with the insect.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So why is it called a spelling bee anyway? Here to unlock the etymology behind the bee is lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster. Peter, thanks for coming in.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: It's great to be here.

BLOCK: We think of a quilting bee, a spelling bee. Where does the word bee come from?

SOKOLOWSKI: The word bee in this particular use is a bit of a puzzle. Many people think that it actually doesn't come from the insect, but in fact comes from an old English word, bane, which would mean help given by neighbors. Think of husking bee, for example, or, as you said, quilting bee. And so there's sort of a tradition that's agrarian and also sort of village life.

In other words, we're not talking about the debate societies of Oxford and Cambridge. We're talking about old English village life.

BLOCK: So go back to that. You're saying bane is the root. Bane meaning...

SOKOLOWSKI: Bane meaning help given by neighbors. And, you know, it's the root of our word boon. If you think of the word boon, that means sort of a blessing or a good thing. And so you can see how this could connect to community activity.

BLOCK: Interesting that that whole notion of community activity or cooperation is completely lost from the spelling bee, right, which is all about competition and you're not helping each other out. They're nice to each other, but they're all about winning.

SOKOLOWSKI: It's a good point. I mean, they are nice to each other. They make, by the way, lifelong friendships. But, you know, Mark Twain called it a spelling fight in "Tom Sawyer."

BLOCK: Really.

SOKOLOWSKI: And what's interesting about this is it's still not quite a fight. You know, the notion of a community activity really also goes back to the tradition of the spelling bee, which was to say that of village entertainment, so that you had in New England in the period right around the Revolutionary War, these village gatherings that would be in the evening and involve children but also adults spelling.

And they used Noah Webster's spelling book and that tradition pushed west, moved west with America.

BLOCK: What was the first use of bee in the sense of communal gathering or communal activity?

SOKOLOWSKI: Yes, we see it going back to spinning bee. Spinning bee. So that's 1769. Husking bee, so now moving it to the farm, 1816. Apple bee, 1827.

BLOCK: What is an apple bee?

SOKOLOWSKI: Apple bee, I assume, is farmers helping their neighbors pick apples...

BLOCK: Pick apples.

SOKOLOWSKI: ...and then reciprocally will help each other. And you can imagine, at harvest time, you would need extra hands and you'd only need them for a day or two, so neighbors would help neighbors.

BLOCK: And the spelling bee, in particular, what's the first use of a spelling bee?

SOKOLOWSKI: Spelling bee, it's interesting because there's so many accounts of this kind of competition that go back really to the Renaissance, to Shakespeare's time. We see a depiction of one student quizzing another and then that moves into the New World. Ben Franklin, in 1750, so long before the Declaration of Independence, he thought that challenging one another was a great way for students to learn and to learn how to spell.

Benjamin Franklin thought spelling was very important. And then, of course, Noah Webster's spelling book came out in 1783, so we know that these competitions existed but they didn't call them spelling bees until 1850.

BLOCK: Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, explaining the spelling bee. Thanks so much.

SOKOLOWSKI: Thanks, Melissa.

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