Why is it Called a Spelling Bee?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesThe insect population dominates the planet, accounting for 80% of the world’s species (with a total population of 10 quintillion!). To date, more than 1 million species have been identified by scientists; however that is only the tip of the hive — scientists speculate that there may be as many as 2 to 30 million species (imagine those exhausted insect census workers, flying from hive to hive). Out of these millions of insects,  are bees — known for their critical role in pollination and producing honey — the best spellers? Are queen bees conducting spelling drills in hives all across the planet? What’s the buzz about spelling bees?

Entomologists will be pleased to learn that the bee is at least tangentially related to the phrase’s origin. The earliest meaning for bee, appearing in print in 1769 in the Boston Gazette, is a gathering of neighbors to unite their labor for the benefit of one another. The word bee itself is derived from the Middle English word bene (a Latin base meaning “well”) meaning “prayer.” The word bene led to the formation of a new word boon meaning “a favor granted, or voluntary help.” Over time, boon acquired variant spellings — been or bean — eventually the “n” was dropped to arrive at a word that made a connection with the insect, recognized for its highly social behavior and tireless coordinated work on behalf of its colony.

Over time, a bee applied not only to communal work, but to hobbies (sewing bees, quilting bees), punishment (lynching bees), and competitions (spelling bees). The phrase “spelling bee” first appeared in print in April 1850 in The Knickerbocker, a New York magazine; prior to popular use of that phrase catching, spelling bees were simply called spelling matches. The earliest use of spelling match was in 1808.

The publication of Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book (known by school children as “The Blue-Backed Speller”) in 1786 was one of the factors that made spelling bees so popular in America in the late  18th century and early 19th century, making literacy and good spelling a patriotic duty. In 1925, the newspaper of Louisville, Kentucky (The Courier-Journal) inaugurated the U.S. National Spelling Bee, using the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the reference for word lists. The competition was acquired by the Scripps Howard News Service in 1941 and renamed the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee (over time, the name “Howard” was dropped).

The spelling bee is held each year in May and over the past few years has been televised by ESPN. Let’s just hope that the contestants don’t take a cue from NASCAR, and begin wearing t-shirts emblazoned with sponsors like Merriam-Webster, Oxford English Dictionary, American Heritage English Dictionary, or Kaplan.

Read related post: Cymotrichous

For further reading: http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/buginfo/bugnos.htm
http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/spelling-bee.html

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