The Spelling Bee

Last week at the 84th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, Sukanya Roy, a 14-year-old from northeastern Pennsylvania, correctly spelled cymotrichous to win the top prize. Sukanya, who said she knew the correct answer, won out over 274 other spellers after 20 rounds. Cymotrichous, which isn’t even recognized by the spell checker in Microsoft Word, means having wavy hair.  According to Reuters, Suyanya will be awarded a $30,000 cash prize, a trophy, a $2,500 U.S. savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, and $2,600 in other prizes.

I stumbled upon this news via the hashtag #SpellingBee and have found the back-story fascinating.  For starters, each contestant, ranging in age from 8 to 15, has to take a 25-word written test to qualify for Round Two.  I consider myself a decent speller and only got 16 of the 25 correct.  Can you do better?

It got harder after that.  The rules allowed all contestants to participate in Rounds Two and Three but only 41 made it to Round Four, 13 to Round Eight, and 5 to Round Twelve.  After finishing in the top five last year, Laura Newcombe and Joanna Ye made it to the final four contestants this year and both lost in round 17!  If you’re still not impressed, check out the list of words that Sukanya spelled correctly to win the contest.

With information available about all winners since 1925, there are opportunities for interesting analyses as well.  The 87 winners represent 30 States, 48 cities, and 58 Sponsors. Ohio and Texas are tied with 9 for the state with the highest number of wins. But Kansas and Colorado get special mention when the results are normalized by population (~1.40 winners per million inhabitants).  Finally, Jody-Anne Maxwell from Jamaica and Hugh Tosteson from Puerto Rico have been the only winners from outside the U.S.

To top it off, there is the puzzle of the term “spelling bee” itself.  Like quilting bees and sewing bees, I assumed that the association with insects was based on the similarity to the social organization of a beehive.  According to National Spelling Bee, my belief is commonly-held but incorrect:

One possibility is that it comes from the Middle English word bene, which means “a prayer” or “a favor” (and is related to the more familiar word boon). In England, a dialect form of this word, been or bean, referred to “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task.”  Bee may simply be a shortened form of been, but no one is entirely certain.

Whatever the derivation, bee is one word I probably could have spelled correctly.

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