Spelling bees in the 1940s

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[This is a guest post by Frank Southworth.  Since Frank is a linguist who specializes on South Asia, it has particular resonance with our long running series of posts on Indian dominance in more recent spelling bees.]

In the spring of 1941, when I was in sixth grade, I was the spelling champion of Public School #30 in Buffalo, NY (which only went up to 6th grade), and I competed in the citywide Buffalo Spelling Bee. In those years the Buffalo contest was regularly won by girls from the Annunciation School, a parochial school built in 1928 and operated by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. It was closed in 1988. (I just learned these facts from Wikipedia.) The school was famous for its rote learning which, if nothing else, did produce good spellers.

In the competition, I was eliminated fairly early when I failed to spell regime (I was not into politics then). The first and second-place winners were girls from Annunciation. I comforted myself by noting that I was able to spell all the words introduced after I was eliminated, including one word missed by both the winners–synchronize–because I had encountered it in reading about aviation, my ruling passion of the time.

Incidentally, my only preparation for the competition (apart from reading, and I was not a very wide or very voracious reader) was to go over, with my parents' help, lists of words which had been used  in previous spelling bees. The kinds of words listed for recent competitions, such as myoclonus or bailliage, would probably have been beyond any of us in those days, and even now some of them are not familiar to me.


  1. John Thayer Jensen said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 2:52 pm

    I was in sixth grade in California in 1953-4. I loved spelling bees. I had competed the previous two years – alas, never even won for our class. I also loved diagramming sentences – do they still teach that? Though my major at University was astronomy for my first two years, I changed to linguistics in year three and ended up with my MA in linguistics. I do not doubt these early language interests played a part.


  2. Vance Maverick said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 3:16 pm

    Southworth may be comparing incomparables. Here (https://www.romper.com/p/what-does-myoclonus-mean-scripps-spelling-bee-viewers-are-hilariously-divided-11380) it says "myoclonus" was correctly spelled by a middle-schooler. "Medical words are a common staple of the Scripps Spelling Bee, accounting for 15 of the winning words since the first winning word in 1925." That is, there may well be more training and higher proficiency now, but it sounds like this competition was doing the same thing back then.

  3. Mara K said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 3:52 pm

    If we're comparing spelling bee stories, I placed third in Central Illinois in eighth grade (2005-06; the word I lost on was gaufrette). I won a third-edition Merriam-Webster dictionary, which my parents still use as our house-rules Scrabble dictionary. But my real triumph that year was winning the Illinois Reader's Digest Word Power Challenge, which got me a free trip to Universal Studios for the national competition. (I placed eleventh, lost on voluble, and knew every word in the top-ten round.)

    I apologize to anyone among the Language Log readership who feels old after reading this.

  4. bks said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    I came in second in the fifth grade, competing with sixth graders. I lost on the word
    Christian because I did not say capital C. It was the first and only word in the competition which required a capital and I was not familiar with the rule. The judges were also perplexed. They asked me to spell it three times before tossing me out. I knew that I had spelled it correctly, and I still carry a grudge.

  5. John Thayer Jensen said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

    I remember that the pattern you were supposed to use was:

    – say the word you were going to spell
    – spell it
    – say the word again at the end

    If you didn't do the first and third bits you also got knocked, which seemed to me bitterly unfair.


  6. Michael Watts said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 6:29 pm

    John Thayer Jensen, it's important to say the word at the end so that you've definitively acknowledged that you're done spelling it. Saying it at the beginning is more pointless.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

    bks, I lost an elementary school spelling bee on the word "whisperer". It was pronounced identically to "whisper". Sentiment among the teachers was that of course it was pronounced identically to "whisper", and this was my fault because I should have asked for it to be used in a sentence.

  8. Mara K said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

    @Michael that's bull. It's the job of the reader to enunciate.

  9. Boudica said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    I came in second in my 8th grade spelling bee. Lost on "counterfeit" because of course i before e except after c doesn't apply.

  10. John Thayer Jensen said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 8:12 pm


    John Thayer Jensen, it's important to say the word at the end so that you've definitively acknowledged that you're done spelling it. Saying it at the beginning is more pointless.

    I know what my 11-year-old mouth would have said to such sophisms :-)


  11. Victor Mair said,

    July 10, 2016 @ 11:15 pm

    From Arvind Kumar:

    Fascinating. One point I want to make is that I hope the part about "rote memorization" is not made with negative connotations.

    This is because I believe that a large bank of data that can be pulled up by the brain without thinking (that is, without exerting itself) is the basis for creative thinking as well as analytical thought processes. How else does one subconsciously come up with analogies (needed for analysis) or imagine interesting things (creative thinking)?

    Anyway, just wait one month and the boot will be on the other foot. The people of India will be the ones lamenting why the country of a billion people can not produce a single Olympic medalist!

    As far as Indian-Americans go, please look into North South Foundation. It is an academic/intellectual ecosystem that has been created to help students. Many parents get their kids to join this institution. I do not think it is a business entity but operates more on the lines of a cultural/social organization with volunteers.

  12. Frank Southworth said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 12:14 am

    Response to Arvind Kumar:
    In fact, I think the emphasis on rote memorization in the case of the Annunciation School was probably mostly sour grapes on the part of those who lost. I wouldn't think that way nowadays, especially after having occupied an office next to an elementary school in Pune for several months and listening to children reciting their multiplication tables loudly every day–since I know the reputation of Indians in mathematics.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 7:07 am

    From David Nelson:

    I shared with my wife–a product of the parochial school system of the 50s. Like everything now, there is a loss of innocence–dance competitions are for those who make it a full time job, spelling Bees for the equally committed. Is there such a thing as an 'amateur' anymore?

  14. Robert Coren said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 9:34 am

    My sixth-grade teacher held occasional in-class spelling bees, and I generally did very well; so of course the one I remember is the one I lost, on the word "financier". The word was unfamiliar to me, and my teacher's pronunciation of the first syllable sounded like /fɛn/ to me, so I never had a chance. (I think, in the end, nobody got the word, and I also have a vague and possibly inaccurate recollection that the "correct" spelling the teacher eventually gave was "financeir".)

  15. Rodger C said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 11:42 am

    dance competitions are for those who make it a full time job, spelling Bees for the equally committed. Is there such a thing as an 'amateur' anymore?

    Apparently not. I was in the National Spelling Bee three years (1958-60) with no more preparation than, at first, a good reading background and, then, a lot of drill with word lists on evenings and weekends (courtesy of my mother), after regular homework. Then, one of those years, the Bee was won by a girl from Kansas whose parochial-school teachers had withdrawn her from all classes for two months to do nothing but study spelling. We considered her a bit scary, and her prep as borderline cheating. But she was the wave of the future.

  16. Rodger C said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    @Michael Watts: Can I assume you're from one of those places where "mirror" is homophonous with "mere"? What happened to you is still stupid, but the places I'm thinking of tend to be places where people regard their local English as perfect.

    And saying a word at the beginning serves the purpose of confirming that you heard the right word.

  17. Rodger C said,

    July 11, 2016 @ 7:23 pm

    My second sentence above, of course, isn't addressed to Michael Watts.

    I should mention that part of my spelling bee success was the sheer luck of dodging (several times), at local bees, the kind of bullets that some other commenters encountered: unclear or regional-accented pronouncers, capitalized and divided words (which are forbidden at higher levels), etc. I wonder how many equally good spellers were eliminated by this kind of nonsense.

  18. Nicki said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    I recall being eliminated in an upper elementary level city spelling bee on the word limeade, a word I'd never encountered, although I was already a voracious reader. Off course I spelled it limeaid, referencing the only similar sounding word I knew! I had prepared briefly with word lists, nothing extensive although I did find the word lists fascinating. I probably spent too much time trying to jam those fabulously exotic and intriguing new words into my active vocabulary, and not enough time drilling the spelling! This was early 90s in north Florida, where refreshing cool summer drinks remain vital.

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