Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Bee and All That Buzz

The first U. S. National Spelling Bee was in 1925, and Frank Neuhauser of Louisville, Kentucky, won it by correctly spelling gladiolus.  Every year, glassy-eyed, word-weary students up to the eighth grade compete in the event, which offers prizes of cash, gold medals, trips to Washington and New York, and the chance to get your picture, either gleefully smiling or joyfully tearful, in your hometown newspaper.

Since 1925, other winning words (or losing words, depending on your point of view) have included: sacrilegious, chlorophyll, insouciant, soubrette, catamaran, eudaemonic, smaragdine, esquamulose, shalloon, hydrophyte, maculature, elucubrate, psoriasis, milieu, odontalgia, antipyretic, spoliator, fibranne, elegiacal, staphylococci, antediluvian, xanthosis, vivisepulture, chiaroscurist, logorrhea, succedaneum, autochthonous, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, and Laodicean­—a few of which are actually in real people’s vocabularies.  Don’t you just love it when those autochthonous Laodiceans in their eudaemonic shalloon bring out their smaragdine serrefines and want to start elucubrating about antipyretic vivisepulture? 

No one really knows (or perhaps cares) why a spelling bee is called a “bee.” The Oxford English Dictionary thinks that quilting bees, husking bees, and other such events that bring people together for a common purpose derive from the activity of the humble bumblebee. Other scholars, however, say fie upon the busy buzzing bees, believing instead that the word is related to the Middle English bene, meaning a favor, and, by extension, a group of volunteers getting together to help a neighbor.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who, as runner-up of the 1950 National Spelling Bee, misspelled the word haruspex (a Roman soothsayer who reads animal entrails), offers his apologia somewhat more than half a century late.

I’d be as great as Julius Caesar,
Or any other Roman geezer,
And the populus would think I was a wizard,
If I were an old haruspex
Who tracked down wicked, evil suspects
By studying the liver of a lizard.

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