Friday, May 17, 2013

The Origins of the Spelling Bee

Merriam-Webster digs deep.

From the piece...

Spelling-fight,” “spelling school,” “spelling match,” “trials in spelling,” “spelling combat,” “spelldown.” It seems that no fixed name for the activity existed, and yet Americans always understood exactly what was meant. Evidence of the term “spelling bee” in print dates from this period of nostalgia and renewed interest. Thus, paradoxically, the new name “spelling bee” dates from the very time when the activity was used to evoke the past. The New York Times used “old-fashioned” to modify “spelling bee” in 1892 and again in 1908; by the time of its coverage of the congressman’s victory of 1913, the terms seemed to be linked inextricably.

The word bee had been used in conjunction with other group activities, such as a “quilting bee,” or occasions when farmers or neighbors would help each other, such as “husking bee,” “apple bee,” or “raising bee.” More grimly, The Oxford English Dictionary also provides evidence of the terms “hanging bee” and “lynching bee.” Despite the obvious link to industriousness and teamwork, this use of the word bee seems to have nothing to do with buzzing insects. The word’s etymology in the Unabridged shows that this bee is an alteration of a word that meant “voluntary help given by neighbors toward the accomplishment of a particular task,” and descends from the Middle English word bene. Bene also gave us the word boon, understood today to mean “blessing” but which also has the meaning of “benefit” or “favor.”

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