Clarification Please: Why Do We Still Have Spelling Bees?

One hundred years ago, 28 congressmen and Washington reporters faced off in a spelling bee the New York Times then described as "old-fashioned." But if spelling bees were already old-fashioned at the turn of the last century, how have they had such staying power? Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden talks with Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large and a longtime spelling bee pronouncer.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

See the didactic prophylactic syntactical feats of English. Hear a verbal thunder dome in which 281 highly trained competitors enter, but only one victor walks off with the prize. They face off in one of the nation's longest running contests, the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It's been around since 1925.

Lexicographer Peter Sokolowski says spelling combats go back centuries in English. From member station WUGA in Georgia, he told us about one bee that took place almost exactly 100 years ago in Washington, DC.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: The article in The New York Times reads like something out of The Onion because it's hard to imagine today that 14 members of Congress squared off against 14 journalists from the Washington Press Corps in a national spelling bee. And I say national because the president of the United States, President Wilson, was in attendance, and one of his cabinet members was the pronouncer. So it's really hard to imagine this today.

LYDEN: You know, I just want to say Congress won, a guy from Ohio.

(LAUGHTER)

SOKOLOWSKI: Congressman Frank Willis of Ohio, it's reported in The New York Times, was a former schoolteacher and taught at the college level as well. He later became a senator and indeed governor of Ohio. So he was formidable opponent.

LYDEN: You've written that spelling bees have been around since the 1500s in England. That was fascinating to learn.

SOKOLOWSKI: Yes. It's interesting to me to go back because the story of the spelling bee always seems to be about nostalgia. The 1913 spelling bee that pitted the congressman against the journalist was called an old-fashioned spelling bee in The New York Times. And I thought, well, the National Spelling Bee, as we know it today, the Scripps Bee, didn't start until a dozen years later.

So here, we have something called old fashioned. But if you go all the way back to the Elizabethan era when Shakespeare was writing, 1596, there's a textbook called "The English Schoole-Maister" written by Edmund Coote.

And in that, he depicts two young students, spellers, who square off, who challenge each other with words, and they ask each other why is the E at the end of people a silent letter, or why is Jesus spelled with a J and not a G? And sometimes the answer one gives to the other is, well, because that's the way it is in the list in the back of the book.

(LAUGHTER)

SOKOLOWSKI: And what's really interesting about that is the list in the back of that book, 1596, was later taken wholesale by another gentleman of that period, and in 1604, he published it as a list with a few other words, and that is regarded today as the first monolingual dictionary in the English language. And so there's this chicken and egg story, which came first, the spelling bee or the dictionary?

LYDEN: Tell me, what do we know about where the term comes from?

SOKOLOWSKI: The term spelling bee is a curious one because we know that these things were done in the Revolutionary War period and in the early 1800s, but these were called spelling schools and spelling matches. And Mark Twain called it a spelling fight in "Tom Sawyer," but the term spelling bee didn't occur until 1850. And what's interesting is the bee in spelling bee is not the insect. It's actually an archaic form of the word bene. In Anglo-Saxon, it means favor or blessing.

And so it's something that you do for someone else. So for example, a barn-raising bee or a quilting bee, in other words, people get together, and they do something together. So it has to do with a group activity.

LYDEN: The Scripps National Spelling Bee is coming this week. And this year, big change to the contest. The kids actually have to know the definition.

SOKOLOWSKI: Right. It's important to note that the definitions are part of the written exam for the spelling bee. So there are preliminaries and semi-finals that happen before the finals, and those written exams include a spelling portion where words are pronounced out loud and the spellers have to spell them. Part of that test will now be a multiple choice vocabulary test. So here's the word, what does it mean. And they're given four choices as to a possible definition.

I think it's wonderful because it does make the spelling bee kind of matter in a way that it may not have before. Spelling is very abstract and very abstruse, and they're talking about very difficult words. But now, we're saying: Let's know how to use these words. And I think that's a great thing.

LYDEN: That's Peter Sokolowski. He's the editor at large at Merriam-Webster. Thank you so much for being with us today. And how do you spell Sokolowski?

(LAUGHTER)

SOKOLOWSKI: It's S-O-K-O-L-O-W-S-K-I.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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