In 1913 a congressman from Ohio named Frank B. Willis became the greatest speller in the United States. That’s because the National Press Club, begun in 1908, had thrown down the gauntlet, challenging politicians to what it called an “old fashioned spelling bee.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee that we all watch with bated breath on ESPN because, well, I don’t know, I guess there’s just something irresistible about watching a twelve year old spell words we’re pretty sure don’t really exist, didn’t start until 1925. So just how “old fashioned” the press vs. politician spelling throw down was, gets a little difficult to pinpoint.
The term “spelling bee” cropped up around 1850, and probably has more to do with a social event such as a “quilting bee” where people come together to bestow a favor rather than from the industrious little insects that pollinate the world’s fruit trees. And we know that there were “trials in spelling,” “spelling matches,” and “spelling flights” as early as late 1700s, with Benjamin Franklin getting in on the action by promoting the usefulness of such activities in schools.
Some have even attempted to trace the spelling bee back to Shakespeare’s day, quoting a passage from The English Schoole-Maister by Edmund Coote in which a pair of students debates the importance of particular letters in the spelling of the word “people”. I’m not sure I buy that connection totally, but there is, I think, a lesson from the Elizabethan era that may point to why spelling bees developed.
Because as everyone who has ever taken an English class in which he or she had to read Shakespeare, or write an essay, or take a spelling test knows, English is kind of a stupid language. Now I mean that with the greatest possible respect because English is, after all, my native language, and certainly the only one I speak with much confidence (if it wasn’t so sad, my Spanish would be hilarious). But it wasn’t until the late 1500s that English spelling was all that well standardized, as anyone who has ever taken a Chaucer class can tol ye.
I guess what I’m saying is that learning to read and write in a language that has lots of rules that it rarely follows can be a little frustrating. This, probably more than any other factor, must have led to the development of the spelling bee because just like correctly identifying ad slogans from the 1950’s at the local pub trivia night, knowing how to correctly spell onomatopoeia gives you bragging rights in my book.
So I was pleased to attend the school-wide spelling bee at my oldest son’s school this week. He was the champion representing his third grade classroom, one of probably about 20 or so kids in the final competition that included 3rd through 5th graders. Not to brag or anything (meaning that I’m totally going to brag), but E is a voracious reader, a great speller, and he won his second grade bee last year against twenty or so of the finest spellers the primary school had to offer.
I probably don’t have to tell you he was a little nervous, and that I was possibly even more nervous. Logically, I knew that he was unlikely to win as a third grader and it was important to me that he understood my expectations were only for him to relax and do his best. I was pretty worried that if he was eliminated early, he would be inconsolably upset.
Sitting among the crowd of anxious parents, I realized we all had that same fear. With every mistake, each parent winced, our hearts beating a little faster as we waited to see whether the eliminated kiddo would burst into tears. Many of them did.
Fortunately, E lasted until only two rounds before the champion was crowned and by then he had outperformed several older kids. Even though he lost because he second-guessed himself on a word we had practiced the night before, he was pleased with how well he had done. And I have never been prouder of him.
Because English is stupid. And spelling it is hard. But learning to lose graciously and move on is one of the most difficult lessons everyone eventually has to learn.
The National Press Club (a group of people who wrote in English professionally) had to learn that lesson in 1913 when a congressman from Ohio, a former professor of history and economics, schooled them.
They got their chance for redemption this past September when the National Press Club hosted a Centennial Spelling Bee throw down as fundraiser for the nonprofit Journalism Institute. This time it was Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia that claimed the victory over all the teary-eyed members of the press.