How do you spell ‘spelling bee?’ E-v-i-l

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That was a heck of a blast against spelling bees from professor Anatoly Liberman at the University of Minnesota on MPR’s Midmorning today.

“It’s an unmitigated evil,” Liberman told MPR’s Kerri Miller. He is the author of Etymology for Everyone: Word Origins and How We Know Them. “The whole thing is wrong from beginning to end. I would not allow any child to come close to the competition, let alone win it.”

Liberman said the words in the championship rounds of the spelling bee are useless. “They’re invented,” he said. “They exist, but they have a shadow existence. They exist for the sake of failing students, those who want to partake in the spelling bee.”

“Not a single of them has anything to do with the English language. They are German, Spanish, sometimes architectural terms from France,” he said. “Knowing how to spell them is absolutely a useless accomplishment.”

  • http://www.skyseastone.net/jvstin Paul (@princejvstin)

    I was really surprised by his opinion. I thought a lover of words like him would feel differently. He did make a point I have to consider, though…

  • Xopher

    It’s like saying that playing baseball is wrong from beginning to end because learning to hit a ball with a bat is a shadow skill.

    It’s a game.

    Keep your children away from games!

  • Mike R

    Not only are they useless words, but the kids are tested in a useless way. When was the last time you had to stand in front of a room of people and spell a word out loud (other than in a spelling bee)? Knowing how to spell correctly while writing is something that is actually useful in everyday life, but it does not necessarily correlate with being able to recite the letters out loud.

  • Bob Collins

    //It’s like saying that playing baseball is wrong from beginning to end because learning to hit a ball with a bat is a shadow skill.

    I think his point is it’s more like learning how to play baseball by swinging a hockey stick at a ball.

  • Xopher

    I think he’s confusing a competition with a pragmatic act.

    A spelling bee is a competition. Becoming literate is a pragmatic act. Are spelling bees used in education? A little bit. But the percentage of kids who spend a serious amount of time on it to become elite is very small. It is probably harmful to a small subset of that group. Why do they resort to using such obscure words that you’d never need to know? Because the spellers are that good.

    A baseball game is a competition. Physical education is a pragmatic act. Is baseball used in physical education? A little bit. But the percentage of kids who spend a serioius amount of time on it to become elite is very small. It is probably harmful to a small subset of that group. Why do they resort to placing the center field fence 400 feet from home plate? No one ever needs to hit anything 400 feet with a bat. Because the players are that good.

  • bsimon

    xopher – well played.

  • Pickwick

    I’m with Professor Liberman. Spelling bees are competitions that don’t t really prove a child is good at anything — except spelling. It doesn’t make them a better reader. It doesn’t make them a better writer. All a spelling bee does is prove that the winner has a vast capacity for irrelevant minutia.

  • Xopher

    They only learn the irrelevant words after they’ve learned ALL the useful ones.

    If you’re against people learning to spell, that’s fine. As a reader I appreciate being able to understand the writer. Almost everything I read, from the NY Times to City Pages, is plumb full of typographical and spelling errors.

    You can’t judge the effect of the game by only observing the winner of the game. The vast majority of spelling bee participants bow out in early rounds and apparently go on to write for Huffington Post or something.

    The professor judges spelling bees by observing the final rounds of the nationals—the part we are treated to each year by the mass media. Jay Leno’s not going to tell jokes about the Vermont semi-finals, because the words they’re trying to spell are useful and commonplace.

    Not to say that I am a spelling bee proponent. I can recognize manufactured talk-show fighting words, even at a public radio level. Professor Liberman is highly entertaining, and a brilliant scholar, but more rhetorician than logician.