There are few academic competitions with more drama and tension than the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. But before the nail-biting action of kids rattling off the letters in words most of us have never heard before, there’s another high-pressure aspect of the event: selecting the word list.
Digging into the debate
While you might think that selecting a list would be as easy as scouring the dictionary for challenging words, there’s a lot more that goes into this precise process.
For most of its history, the prestigious bee has kept its strategies under wraps, but the Associated Press was invited to take a look behind the scenes in preparation for this year’s competition.
Here’s a glimpse into what reporters found:
- 21 members of the selection panel were gathered for hours on end in a windowless room.
- The sheets of paper with thousands of words on them are not allowed to leave the premises.
- Five former champions currently sit on the panel, which was first created nearly 40 years ago.
Prior to 1985, just one person was responsible for coming up with all the words that were used in the bee. Nowadays, it’s a complex ordeal geared toward fairness and clarity.
How words get dropped
The AP agreed to Scripps’ terms and could therefore only reveal words if they had been removed from the list. So that brings us to the natural question: Why would the panel remove a word?
In one case, the word “gleyde,” a British term for an old horse, was deemed ineligible due to the fact that another word — glyde — sounds very similar and has the same meaning.
As the word pronouncer in the meeting determined: “Nice word, but bye-bye.”
Another common reason for removing a word is if it’s outdated or no longer in use.