Pre-“Bee Week” Buzz
By Brett Austin
It’s June 24th, 1927 and Dean Lucas, 13, from Wayne County, Ohio stands on stage in Washington D.C. for the Scripps 3rd National Spelling Bee beside fellow thirteen-year-old spelling enthusiast Ralph Keenan of Waukon, Iowa. (In this case “Scripps’” Spelling Bee is a bit of a misnomer as, in 1927, the Bee was sponsored by the Louisville Courier-Journal. Scripps Howard didn’t end up sponsoring the Bee until nearly fifteen years later, but it’s still referred to as Scripps National pretty much universally today no matter the historical accuracy.) A dejected Minerva Ressler, twelve years old from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, just eliminated from competition, accepts third. The measurable significance of this is that Ressler’s down the $500 cash that second place finishers are customarily awarded. Third place Minerva Ressler exits the stage as Dean Lucas traces her movements with a puckish grin that seems to say: Better luck next year, Minerva.
The word is abrogate — “abolish, annul, cancel, repeal by authority” — and Keenan’s up to bat. “Abrogate,” he parrots in a small voice. The first three letters are a piece of proverbial cake, just keep your cool. There’s $1,000 on the line, that’s a lot of money. Sound the thing out and don’t allow yourself to become upset. If you’re upset about your problems you have two problems. Take a couple of deep breaths to calm down. (While first prize in ‘27 was $1,000, nowadays, winning Scripps National gets you a $30,000 cash prize, a savings bond roughly approximated at $2,500, plus “an engraved loving cup trophy from Scripps, a reference library from Merriam-Webster, $2,600 in reference works, a lifetime membership to Britannica Online Premium from Encyclopædia Britannica, $5,000 cash prize from the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, and an online course and a Nook eReader from K12 Inc.” Overwhelming.)
“Abrogate. A, B—.” Keenan pauses to evaluate his competitor, Dean Lucas, who appears thoroughly poised, unshaken. “R—,” Keenan continues. What could come after R…. I like to imagine that at this point there’s an acute silence and the audience leans in closer and Ralph Keenan’s body language becomes increasingly antsy/overwrought — maybe his left eyelid has an impressive twitch going on and he’s perspiring heavily through his formal wear, big damp collections of sweat under his arms and across his back and more than a few globules running down his face. Try not to get upset. You know this. Believe that you know it and that it’s all inside of you. Then, just let what’s inside come out.
“E—.” Incorrect. Keenan takes a seat. Dean Lucas comes to the podium, spells abrogate as it should be, and receives his final word: luxuriance. Needless to say Lucas breezes through his recitation and shortly thereafter he’s crowned 1929’s National Spelling Bee Champion — a consummate pro, sovereign of the spelling circuit — met with applause, gifted $1,000, and the papers go wild for Dean Lucas. Miami News, July 6th: “Dean Lucas … is, in a way, remarkable.”
On the etymology of the term ‘Spelling Bee’:
“The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for… The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769. Other early occurrences are husking bee (1816), apple bee (1827), and logging bee (1836). Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems likely that the word was used orally for several years before that.”
“Those who used the word… thought that this particular meaning had probably been inspired by the obvious similarity between these human gatherings and the industrious, social nature of a beehive. But in recent years scholars have rejected this explanation…. 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.’ (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary).
Bee may simply be a shortened form of been, but no one is entirely certain.”
According to Scripps’ website “Bee Week 2015” begins May 24th. [Also found on the spellingbee.com webpage, from 2014’s downloadable “Bee Week Guide”: “WHERE DOES DR. BAILLY GET THE WORDS? Occasionally, we hear theories that the Bee… creates special themes for its word lists. Let’s just say that we find these theories amusing.” And if you’re interested in a connection so tenuous it’s almost criminal: May 24th, the kickoff to this year’s Bee Week, resides precisely ninety days before marginally homophonic National Honey Bee Day. (2015’s National Honey Bee Day Theme: Ban Ignorance, Not Honey Bees.)] Prelims — tickets=$20 — are on May 29th while Semifinals ($25) and Finals ($40) are on May 30th. All will be held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor Event, Minnesota. If you’re looking to “[e]xperience the drama of live competition and be a part of the audience as 281 spellers compete for the title of 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion” then you’d be advised to act quickly. Or you could watch the whole thing from your sofa, as it’ll be televised on ESPN in high definition free for those with a subscription.
Aphorisms re Spelling/Words:
“When our spelling is perfect, it’s invisible. But when it’s flawed, it prompts strong negative associations.”
— Marilyn vos Savant
“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”
—David Foster Wallace
“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” —Samuel Beckett