On July 8, 2021, Zaila Avant-garde, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from New Orleans, Louisiana, won the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word “murraya”(defined by Merriam-Webster as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees (family Rutaceae) having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals”). For her spelling brilliance, Avant-garde won a $50,000 in cash, a trophy, and — of course — bragging rights to being the best speller in America — not to mention the ability to ignore annoying spellcheckers on her favorite apps. Notably, she is the first Black American to win the competition in the Spelling Bee’s 96-year history; she is the second Black champion, following Jody-Anne Maxwell of Jamaica who won the competition in 1998. Unlike most spelling competitors who begin training as early as kindergarten, Avant-garde began training two years ago, studying words for about seven hours each day, and competed in 18 spelling tournaments to get to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
A review of the words used in the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee shows that the judges don’t mess around when it comes to finding truly difficult and obscure words, venturing into the world of art, antiquity, medicine, zoology, and botany. In fact, most of them fall into the category of “I didn’t even know that there was a word for that!” A review of the winning words form the inaugural Spelling Bee in 1925 to now shows a steady evolution from simple words, like “albumen” or “fracas,” to amazingly difficult words like “feuilleton” and “scherenschnitte.” So why have the words become so difficult? Since ESPN started broadcasting the Spelling Bee in 1994, the competition has attracted more competitors, and more significantly, ones who possess truly remarkable spelling skills. This year the event featured 209 contestants ranging in age from 9 to 15 years old. As you can see from the list below, most of these words are ridiculously arcane — most can only be found in unabridged or specialized dictionaries. In order to spell a word correctly, contestants can ask clues about the word, such as what part of speech it is, language of origin, and alternate pronunciation.
Here is a list of some of the more difficult words of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee, including their definitions:
murraya: a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees
retene: a crystalline hydrocarbon isolated from pine tar, rosin oil, and various fossil resins but usually prepared from abietic acid and related compounds by dehydrogenation
neroli oil: a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly of the sour orange and used as a flavoring and in cologne
Nepeta: a plant of a genus that includes catnip and several kinds, cultivated for their spikes of violet or blue flowers
fewtrils: things of little value; trifles
fidibus: a paper spill for lighting pipes
haltere: one of a pair of club-shaped organs in a dipteran fly that are the modified second pair of wings and function as sensory flight stabilizers
athanor: a self-feeding digesting furnace that maintained a uniform and durable heat and was used by alchemists
depreter: a finish for a plastered wall made by pressing small stones in the soft plaster
consertal: of an igneous rock, of a texture in which the irregularly shaped crystals interlock
psychagogic: attractive, persuasive, inspiring; of or relating to psychagogy
duchesse: a chaise lounge with arms that was popular in 18th century France
thanatophidia: venomous snakes
ambystoma: a genus (the type of the family Ambystomidae) of common salamanders found in America and characterized by amphicoelous vertebrae, short prevomers, and internal fertilization
theodolite: a surveyor’s instrument for measuring horizontal and usually also vertical angles
ancistroid: shaped like a hook; resembling a hook
chrysal: a transverse line of crushed fibers in the belly of an archery bow beginning as a pinch
cloxacillin: a semisynthetic oral penicillin used to treat bacterial infections.
regolith: unconsolidated residual or transported material that overlies the solid rock on the earth, moon, or a planet
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For further reading: http://www.merriam-webster.com