Talking ‘bee’

Like the end of the Olympics, I am having spelling bee withdrawl withdrawal today. I am not yet ready to let go of the two astounding — if predictable — facts surrounding the annual spelling extravaganza.

1) We have far too many useless words in our language. Perhaps there should be a sunset provision whenever someone makes a word. If it is not used for one year or if it’s use is followed by the more common “huh?”, it is banished from our language. Forever. We’re not fooling.

The problem is — as I learned on Twitter today (from @ecaron) — we are fast approaching one million words. We’re 12 days, 2 hours and change away, according to the Global Language Monitor.

Alcopops, chengguan, and chiconomics (the ability to maintain one’s fashion sense in a bad economy) are dangerously close to entering the lexicon (n. Gk. lexikos, of words. Def. What you write when you’ve already used language too much in a blog post.)

2) We feel a little queasy about whether we put our kids through too much. National TV? Prime time? Academics have often wondered what would happen if the math quiz got the same attention as sports, but as far as I know, Grey’s Anatomy has never been delayed to show a kid’s sporting event.

There was a moment near the end of last night’s spelling bee in which a young woman spelled the word wrong, then buried her sobbing head into her parents’ embrace. On the other hand, the last remaining young man who spelled his word wrong, calmly sat down as if it was just another day in homeschooling hell.

The Daily Beast saw it coming:

If you’ve seen the documentary Spellbound, you know the lengths to which some kids–and, more to the point, some parents–go to prepare for the Bee. The finalists will have spent hundreds of hours–possibly thousands in the case of veteran spellers–memorizing arcane words. They will have been tested via printed word lists and interactive software. They will have been drilled ceaselessly by demanding moms, dads, teachers and coaches. For the top competitors, the pressure is profound. (As the Bee has evolved, it’s grown more difficult. The winning word in 1981 was “sarcophagus.” Not to brag, but my first-grade daughter can spell that.)

(Aside: Do these kids “text” on their cellphones? Do they spell out all of their words or abbreviate, thereby misspelling them?)

Most people seem to agree, however, that it’s not an entirely bad concept to watch kids using their brains for a couple of days; even if they have no sense of chiconomics.

  • Marina
  • Bruce

    Is the problem that we have too many words or is it that English words are too unpredictable to spell? The spelling bee is a completely alien concept to many languages that have rigid phonetic spelling.

  • Bob Collins

    Marina, that’s awesome!

    Bruce, I prefer to think that the world would be no worse off if laodicean, mynheer, phoresy, guayabera, sophrosyne were banished. After all, of what value is a word in communication if people don’t know what it means, and even these kids clearly had no clue what the MEANING of the word was that they were trying to spell.

  • sm

    In the era of vanishing attention spans it’s quite an achievement to memorize a large quantity of anything, be it words, poems, sheet music or theatrical parts. Overbearing parents and pedagogues aside, the kids have a right to feel they’ve accomplished something, even if they look like trained ponies.

    And whatever happened to College Bowl? I used to like watching that. The closest thing now is Jeopardy… no wonder we’re getting the pants beat off us by the encroaching third world. It’s just embarrassing, not to mention lifestyle-changing.

  • Bob Collins

    I was actually fascinated by detecting that it wasn’t so much memorizing as much as word origin that helped these kids.

    There was one moment where one young lady was given Caerphilly — I think — and the judge noted it was rooted in Latin.

    “Let’s see if she picks up on its Latin origin,” I said to my wife.

    “Did you say that was from Latin?” she asked.

    “Well,” I said to my wife, “she just got the first three letters.”

    It was quite interesting to see that there was much more knowledge involved in construction of the word.

    I used to love watching College Bowl (Alan Ludden). Even now when someone guesses something wrong, I say “No, can you take it Loyola?” and people have no idea why I’m saying that.

    But,you know, this gets back to the post I made about Sotomayor. Most of these kids are American kids. Why do some people succeed and others with the same opportunity (or often, lack of same) NOT succeed?

    Hey, it beats American idol or Dancing with the Stars, I think.

  • We have far too many useless words in our language. Perhaps there should be a sunset provision whenever someone makes a word. If it is not used for one year or if it’s use is followed by the more common “huh?”, it is banished from our language. Forever. We’re not fooling.

    I think we should also ban one commonly used word a year, just to make things interesting. Like “fly” or “napkin”.

  • Joke [only funny, if you even think so, when it’s spoken] on the stupidity of English spelling:

    How do you spell fish?


    gh as in enough

    ti as in emotion

    and the 3 is silent.

    I think it would be wonderful to require one word be spelled one way. So, do you buy draft beer or draught beer? Draught of course, could be used as a noun and be ok, but as an adjective, it needs to be ditched in favor of modern English.

    My husband’s native language is not English. I generally only correct him when I know he won’t be understood – for example using words that he thinks are real, but aren’t. [e.g., it took me a long time to realize that his use of the word professorial was not the word I just typed, but had the intent of “temporary”, a mental derailment from a French version of provisionally]

    My rule is that if you can be understood, it’s okay.

    Conversely, hence the culling of the lexicon – if you can’t be understood by 99% of the country, what’s the point? That’s what dictionaries and profession-specific literature is for.

  • J. Smith

    ElizabethT: there are more english speakers than just in the united states…

  • momkat

    And to be completely silly, if I ever had a dog, I’d name it Phydeaux. But I’m a cat person so I’ll never have a dog.