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What Makes The Spelling Bee So Hard

This week, 291 children, ranging from a single kindergartner to 124 eighth-graders, will assemble in National Harbor, Maryland, for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.1 The bee, which began in 1925, is the highest-profile spelling contest in the country. The winner will receive a $40,000 cash prize, a Merriam-Webster reference library (as if they need it), an Encyclopædia Britannica and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. But most of the young spellers will go home empty-handed, victims of the bee’s wicked bell, which dings whenever a mistake is made.

Since 1996, young spellers have attempted to spell over 14,000 words2 — from abactor to zymurgy. Twenty-five percent of those words, over 3,500, have been misspelled. This year, yet more words will be plucked from 470,000-odd options in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary. I sifted through all 21 years’ worth of errors,3 looking for reasons that some of the best spellers in the world stumbled when the stakes were highest. I found a gantlet of potential pitfalls — including capricious vowel sounds and obscure double meanings. To help your own study habits — or make you thankful you never attempted a spelling career — I’ve put together a cheat sheet of eight spelling bee tips. Prepare your flash cards accordingly.


Tip 1: Don’t be intimidated by word length

When I was growing up, playground canon held that antidisestablishmentarianism (28 letters) was the longest word. It was also received fact that longer words were harder to spell, which meant that that 28-letter beast was nigh impossible. The schoolyard logic remains appealing on some level: more letters, more opportunities for error. But in reality, many super-long words are technical or scientific in nature and often follow rules that are familiar to good spellers. For example, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (45 letters) appears in Merriam-Webster and thus could be posed in the bee. But it’s made up of logical, straightforward pieces with familiar lexicographic constructions — ultra meaning extreme, micro meaning small, -osis meaning disease, and so on. It’d likely be a cinch for any serious bee contender.

So what effect does word length have on bee performance? Not much, it seems. The median length of all words posed in the bee since 1996 is nine letters. The average length of correctly spelled words is 8.91, while the average length of incorrectly spelled words is 8.95. And the spreads of correctly spelled and misspelled words across the number of letters look quite similar.

The longest word posed in the past two decades at the bee — electroencephalograph — has 21 letters. The shortest — auk, gbo and rya — have just three. Only one of those three words was spelled correctly in competition, however.

Tip 2: A little Talmud study couldn’t hurt

Before last year’s bee, we looked at where spelling bee words come from. English is a beautiful mess and has incorporated words from all sorts of languages. The most common language of origin for spelling bee words4 was Latin; over 1,400 bee words sprang from that ancient language, and spellers nailed them at a 71 percent clip. The easiest was Late Greek, which had a spelling-success rate of 90 percent. Some examples of words derived from Late Greek: deuterogamy, isapostolic and narthex. Second-easiest, to my surprise, was Hawaiian, with words like haupia, hoomalimali and hukilau. The most difficult, albeit with a small sample size, was Hebrew — just 45 percent of its 20 words had been spelled correctly.

LANGUAGE WORDS SHARE SPELLED CORRECTLY
Hebrew 20
45%
Persian 26
58
American Spanish 44
61
Sanskrit 45
62
Russian 108
65
Toughest languages of origin at the Scripps spelling bee, 1996-2014

Sources: Scripps National Spelling Bee, CHRISTOPHER LONG

Tip 3: Beware the deadly ə

The schwa, depicted in phonetic guides as “ə” and the uh sound at the end of pizza, is the most common vowel sound in English. The trouble with the schwa, spelling-wise, is that all English vowels can make its particular sound. “A” does it in pizza, the second “e” does it in elephant, “i” does it in pencil, “o” does it in oven, “u” does it in supper and even “y” does it in syringe.5 What’s more, sometimes multiple vowels combine to make one schwa. Take the word patulous. It’s pronounced pa-chə-ləs — two schwas, spelled two ways. This word bounced Ben Proshek, a 14-year-old from Ohio, from the 1999 bee. He went, understandably, with “patulus.”

Examples of the deadly ə abound. Atticism stumped Sarita Mizin in 2001, who went with “atacism.” Meralgia tripped up Daniel Hwang in 2007; he tried “moralgia.” And latke did in Jill Fenton in 2001; she tried “lotka.”

Things like the schwa separate the spelling bee from other spelling-intensive pursuits like, say, Scrabble. In competitive Scrabble, there are something like 100,000 playable words. The top players have them down cold, but it’s the cold of a vacuum — the words are stripped of their etymological or historical context. If you tried to memorize 100,000 words and their individual stories, you’d likely go insane. There are many more possible words in the National Spelling Bee, though, so it helps to have context when deciphering a bee word’s schwa. In Ben’s case, knowing that patulous is an adjective that means spreading widely from a center and that -ous is an adjectival suffix meaning that something possesses a given quality could’ve revealed the nature of that particular schwa. Knowing that an atticism is a characteristic of Attic Greek could help you pin down that “i.” If you were aware that mērós was ancient Greek for thigh and that -algia was a suffix meaning pain, you could nail that “e.”

But sometimes not even ancient or etymological knowledge can save you. Latke comes from the Ukrainian oladka — somewhere along the line, the schwa shifted its spelling from “a” to “e.” Spelling is hard.
 

Tip 4: Double letters can mean trouble

Is it pavilion or pavillion? Tinnitus or tinitus? Philippic or philipic?6 Doubled letters are another bee bugaboo.

Double “l” — as in balloon — has been the most vicious culprit, appearing in 83 of the roughly 1,400 late-round knockout words since 1996 and seeming like it might appear in many others. Take, for example, the word hellebore, a genus of poisonous herbs. According to Merriam-Webster, it comes from the Middle English elebre — one “l”! But that spelling is derived from the Latin elleborus — double “l”! Pity Neil Kadakia, who was knocked out by this devilish word in 1999.

Double “r” appeared in 34 misspelled late-round bee words and seemed like it might appear in others. Parterre knocked out Julie Palmer and Katherine Cross, in 2001 and 2004, respectively. They both tried a spelling of “partare.” Ferity spelled the end for Gina Daniel, who opted for “ferrity,” in 2001.

Again, learning derivations and context can help. Ferity is the state of being feral (one “r”), which comes from the Latin feritas (also one “r”). Parterre, an ornamental garden, comes from French, and terre (double “r”) is French for earth.

But even armed with knowledge like that, spellers still face many other double-letter difficulties. It’s tufoli, not “tuffoli,” as Akshat Shekhar learned in 2007. It’s cordonnet, not “cordonet,” which Sachith Gullapalli found out in 2008. And it’s certainly hard to blame Frank Cahill for thinking porwigle was “porwiggle” back in 2012.
 

Tip 5: Embrace the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

The ch sound, like in “checkers” or “chess,” can also cause issues for spellers. The problem is that the sound can also be made by other letters — the “t” in cloture, for example. Same story goes for monture (a setting for a jewel), which has been posed three times at the bee since 1996. Not a single speller got it right; each contestant opted for “moncheur” or “mauncher.” A lone “c” can also make the sound. In 2015, Siyona Mishra misspelled haček as “hachek.” Irony of ironies, a haček is the diacritical mark that is used to modify the sound of the “c” to a ch sound and appears in the word haček itself.

The “ch” combination can wreak all sorts of other havoc in the bee. In many cases, “ch” makes a hard k sound. Think Christmas or cholera. In 2001, Alex French was posed the bizarre word splanchnology, a branch of anatomy. She was dinged after missing the “ch” and trying “splanknology.” But other times, even when a word smells like it might have a hard “ch,” it does not. Sean Conley made this mistake on a word he was posed in 1999, offering the spelling “choreopsis.” Problem is, the word is spelled coreopsis. In other years, lucre was misspelled as “luchre,” chela as “kela” and nacre as “nachre.”

Splanchnology deals with guts and comes from the Greek splánchna, meaning viscera, and coreopsis, a genus of herb, comes from koris, meaning bedbug. This knowledge of root languages is a machete that can help cut through these impossible thickets of spelling difficulty. Which is, of course, extremely easy for me to say.

Tip 6: Some words are more than meets the ear

A farrow is a litter of pigs, while faro is a gambling game. Kathleen Skarbek confused the two in 1996. (And let’s not forget the similar farro and pharaoh.) A toxin is a poisonous substance; a tocsin is an alarm bell. Robin Swain learned that in 1998. A minion is a servile dependent; a minyan is the quorum required for Jewish communal worship. Tell that to Clara Yoon that same year.

Homophones — words that sound the same but mean different things — are an especially painful potential mistake. After all, the contestants above did spell a word correctly.

In addition to being able to ask bee officials for a word’s language of origin, part of speech and sample use in a sentence, spellers can request a definition. This is clearly key in these cases. Suppose you stepped on the stage and your word from the official pronouncer sounded like sah-ma. “OK,” you might think to yourself, “that’s probably spelled ‘sama.’” If the word meant muttonfish, you’d be exactly right. But if the word meant the rim of a volcanic crater: ding! That one’s spelled “somma.”

Tip 7: Don’t be flummoxed by the obscure

My above taxonomy is not exhaustive, of course. The unabridged Merriam-Webster has nearly half a million entries. Even if you’re facing down that massive linguistic swarm equipped with a sharp memory and deep etymological knowledge, treacherous and baffling words are around every corner. Not to mention your parents in the audience and ESPN cameras trained on your every fidget.

Under the hot National Harbor stage lights, when spellers are presented with an obscure word, sometimes things just go off the rails. In past bees, Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine system, became the incorrect “iurvata.” Gendarme, a member of a police force, became “jondar.” Ogive, a diagonal arch, became “aujive.” Oflag, a German prison camp, became, in what seems to me like a great guess, “auflahg.” Jacopever, a fish, became “yakapevver.”

I salute the spellers.

Tip 8: Remember the mumu ordeal

In two bees in the late ’90s, both A.J. Anderson and Geoff Misek were asked to spell the word muumuu — a type of long, loose dress. Both offered the spelling “mumu,” which was judged incorrect. Ding. But not all dictionaries would have been so harsh. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, for example, which is published by Merriam-Webster, defines “mumu” as “muumuu” — meaning that the former is an alternative but perfectly correct spelling. Collins, Dictonary.com and the Oxford English Dictionary also give mumu as an acceptable spelling of muumuu. In other words, A.J. and Geoff were robbed.
 


 
Those types of discretionary interpretations, which decide between a speller’s joy and sorrow, are enough to make one wonder: Why? Why spell? Why hold a bee?

These young spellers are responsible for knowing more or less the entirety of human existence after it has been jammed through a lexicographic meat grinder operated by one publishing company’s editorial board. That they’re doing this while being televised might seem arbitrary at best and callous at worst. Drew Magary, writing for Deadspin, went so far as to ask whether the bee was “evil.”

It’s not, he concluded. “It’s just hard, and hard is good.”

There is a sort of austere beauty to the whole thing. In her excellent recent article in Harper’s, Vauhini Vara spelunks into the world of bees and runs up against the question of why. What, in the time of spell-check, is the point of all this? “To be a great speller,” Vara concludes, “is to know how to name the world.” Maybe it’s like Radiohead said: “Everything in its right place.” Or maybe it’s like the line from “Doctor Zhivago,” when the narrator describes the book’s protagonist like so: “She was here on Earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name.”

Spelling quizzes by Gus Wezerek
Illustration by Justin McCraw and Kate LaRue

Footnotes

  1. ESPN, which owns FiveThirtyEight, will broadcast the competition Wednesday on ESPN3 and Thursday on ESPN2 during the day and ESPN during the evening.

  2. There were over 9,000 unique words used at the bee in the past 21 years. Many were used in more than one year. Apparatchik, trattoria, perestroika, prosciutto, glockenspiel, raconteur and vivace make up the bee’s exclusive eight-timer club.

  3. The words and spellings were scraped by Christopher Long from the spelling bee’s website, and archives thereof, and are available in full on his GitHub page.

  4. For languages appearing at least 20 times in Round 2 and beyond of bees from 1996 through 2014.

  5. My editor is still smarting from misspelling crocodile as “crocadile” at the Danbury Fair Mall spelling bee in Connecticut in the late ’90s. He received a bag of Goldfish crackers as his consolation prize.

  6. It’s the former in each case.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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