Spelling Bee: Why Are Some Words So Hard? The 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee is under way, near Washington, D.C. Linguist Ben Zimmer explains what makes some words difficult to spell — and how the contestants learn to conquer them.
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Spelling Bee Pregame: Why Are Some Words So Hard?

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Spelling Bee Pregame: Why Are Some Words So Hard?

Spelling Bee Pregame: Why Are Some Words So Hard?

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Now that is a story for radio, one you really have to hear. And we turn now to this story, another good radio story, just outside of Washington, D.C. 275 kids are stepping up to the microphone today, for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The spellers range in age, from eight to 15 years old. Last year's winner correctly spelled the word stromuhr, that's S-T-R-O-M-U-H-R, and it's an instrument designed to measure the amount and speed of blood flowing through an artery.

Ben Zimmer is the editor of the online magazine Visual Thesaurus. We called him to talk about the words that come up during spelling bees. Good morning.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Editor, Visual Thesaurus): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now I just mentioned the winning word from last year. Give us one more example of a word that stumps just about everyone.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, a lot of these words, like stromuhr, come from foreign languages. So for instance, you know, there's a word abatis. It's a French word meaning a line of defense consisting of a barrier of felled trees with sharpened branches pointed toward the enemy. And that's spelled A-B-A-T-I-S, so that's following the French rules of spelling.

MONTAGNE: A-B-A-T-I-S, oh, abatis, well, yeah, that's because of the silent S.

Mr. ZIMMER: Right, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Does it help to know what words mean, in other words, have a very big vocabulary, or are other language skills more valuable, like, if it's Latin based or something like that?

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, the top spellers definitely focus on the building blocks of words that come from the classical languages of Latin and Greek. But the hardest words don't even let you do that.

MONTAGNE: For instance?

Mr. ZIMMER: Isarithm, which means a contour line on the graph of a mathematical function. It sounds like it should end like the word rhythm.

MONTAGNE: Yes, right.

Mr. ZIMMER: Right, R-H-Y-T-H-M. But really it's spelled I-S-A-R-I-T-H-M, like algorithm, so people get tripped up on that. Another example: hidrosis. It's a medical term. Do you want to try spelling hidrosis?

MONTAGNE: Well, I think you might spell it like hydrate, so H-Y-D, like hydrate, um, rosis, R-O-S-I-S.

Mr. ZIMMER: Right.

MONTAGNE: I suspect that's wrong, though.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yes, it's a tricky one because it comes from a Greek word hidros we spell with an I, H-I-D-R-O-S-I-S.

MONTAGNE: And what does that Greek word mean?

Mr. ZIMMER: It's to sweat. The Greek word for sweat is hidros, and so that's where that comes from.

MONTAGNE: Oh, that's really tricky though...

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...because it is about water.

Mr. ZIMMER: In fact that happens with words that are more common. We can get tripped up on it because it sounds like a word that should be related, so people often have trouble spelling a word like sacrilegious, because it sounds like it should be related to religious and spelled like religious, but in fact it's not.

MONTAGNE: It's S-A-C-R-E, like sacred, or...

Mr. ZIMMER: Actually S-A-C-R-I-L-E-G-I-O-U-S.

MONTAGNE: So it's a double whammy.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. A lot of it just comes down to strict rote memorization of words, going through the dictionary and just memorizing tons and tons of words. These kids are just spending sometimes a few hours a day just going through word lists. The ones that are most difficult, very often they are coming from immigrant families that really prize learning English as part of becoming assimilated into American culture, and so my hat's off to all of these young spellers.

MONTAGNE: Linguist Ben Zimmer, thanks very much for joining us again.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, thank you.

MONTAGNE: The Scripps National Spelling Bee is underway today and we have more of the toughest spelling bee words at and a spelling quiz at our website. This is NPR News.

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