A Thing About Words

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May 13, 2013

Of Schoolmasters and Spelling Bees

Noah WebsterOne hundred years ago this June, a Republican congressman from Ohio was proclaimed “the best speller in the United States” in the New York Times. Congressman Frank Willis earned his title in a contest that pitted fourteen senators and congressmen against fourteen members of the Washington press corps in an event attended by then-President Woodrow Wilson. The Times report added, “Now the Ohio member is ready to challenge the world in a spelling combat,” and referred to the event as “an old-fashioned ‘spelling bee’.” So two questions arise: Why, in 1913 – some dozen years before the first Scripps National Spelling Bee would take place – was a spelling bee considered “old-fashioned”? And why, for that matter, is a spelling bee called a spelling bee?


Evidence of spelling contests in English can be traced back to Elizabethan England. In his 1596 book The Englishe Scholemaister, Edmund Coote wrote an account of one of his classroom exercises, a spelling challenge between two students that reads like a Socratic dialogue about the essential nature of silent letters, hard and soft consonant values, and acceptable variants. This kind of spelling duel was carried over to America, and Benjamin Franklin himself recommended the practice in 1750, with the addition of a prize given to the victor: “a pretty neat Book of some Kind useful in their future studies.” A teacher in Newport called them “trials in spelling” in 1766; a Connecticut school’s tradition in 1795 was to have the bad spellers clean the schoolhouse while the good spellers went out to play. School-day contests gave way to evening ones during the early 1800s in New England, where students would gather for regional “spelling schools” or “spelling matches” that were social events as much as educational ones. By mid-century, the practice had moved west with the pioneers and reached California.


BlueBack_Speller-250x384Noah Webster’s famous “Blue-Backed Speller” often served as the reference for correct spellings in these contests. First published in 1783, it became a standard textbook for generations of Americans; Webster himself was sometimes referred to as “schoolmaster of the republic.”


By the end of the Civil War, spelling contests had “lapsed as being old-fashioned,” according to Allen Walker Read (whose 1941 article “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk” provided many of my examples). A wave of nostalgia would bring a revival of interest following the publication of The Hoosier Schoolmaster in 1871. The bestselling novel, set a generation or so earlier, included a depiction of a spelling contest that led to a nationwide craze. Tom Sawyer, published in 1876 and set in the 1830s, also made mention of a “spelling-fight.”


“Spelling-fight,” “spelling school,” “spelling match,” “trials in spelling,” “spelling combat,” “spelldown.” It seems that no fixed name for the activity existed, and yet Americans always understood exactly what was meant. Evidence of the term “spelling bee” in print dates from this period of nostalgia and renewed interest. Thus, paradoxically, the new name “spelling bee” dates from the very time when the activity was used to evoke the past. The New York Times used “old-fashioned” to modify “spelling bee” in 1892 and again in 1908; by the time of its coverage of the congressman’s victory of 1913, the terms seemed to be linked inextricably.


The word bee had been used in conjunction with other group activities, such as a “quilting bee,” or occasions when farmers or neighbors would help each other, such as “husking bee,” “apple bee,” or “raising bee.” More grimly, The Oxford English Dictionary also provides evidence of the terms “hanging bee” and “lynching bee.” Despite the obvious link to industriousness and teamwork, this use of the word bee seems to have nothing to do with buzzing insects. The word’s etymology in the Unabridged shows that this bee is an alteration of a word that meant “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task,” and descends from the Middle English word bene. Bene also gave us the word boon, understood today to mean “blessing” but which also has the meaning of “benefit” or “favor.”


But maybe the old-fashioned word we should be focusing on instead is schoolmaster. Interest in the spelling bee was resurrected in America by a book called The Hoosier Schoolmaster; Noah Webster was referred to as both “the schoolmaster of the republic” and “schoolmaster to America”; the first historical reference to an English spelling contest is found in Edmund Coote’s book The Englishe Scholemaister. This work contained a table of hard words, specifically referred to in his account of a spelling contest between two students. It also served as the principal source of words – 87 percent of them – for Robert Cawdry’s 1604 A table alphabeticall, considered the first monolingual dictionary in English. It would therefore seem that we can trace the origins of both the spelling bee and the dictionary to a single slender Elizabethan volume. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the two share a common history.


Joshua Kendall, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (New York: Putnam, 2011).


James Maguire, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 2006).
Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large, has written definitions for Merriam-Webster's French-English and Advanced Learner's dictionaries. A frequent lecturer on language, he also serves as pronouncer for spelling bees around the world. Follow @PeterSokolowski on Twitter.

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2 Responses to “Of Schoolmasters and Spelling Bees”

  1. KPasolova says:

    I always thought that a “spelling bee” sounded vaguely threatening, but imagine sending your kids off to fight in “spelling combat”!

  2. […] bee, it seems, is an American tradition older than even American independence.According to this article by Merriam-Webster, Benjamin Franklin recommended a similar contest already 1750.Connecticut school’s tradition in […]