Spelling Buzz: The Scripps National Spelling Bee

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

To Bee or Not to Bee?

by Holly Hartman and Shmuel Ross

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See complete list of winning spelling bee words back to 1925

Every year millions of students participate in spelling competitions around the country. Some dread these annual school events and are relieved to drop out in the early rounds. Some, however, study for hours a day, hoping to take part in the glory of "Bee Week"—the National Spelling Bee finals.


In 2016, the National Spelling Bee takes place over three days in May. But the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee actually starts months before, as, every year, competition is narrowed at school, local, and regional events. Ultimately, 285 will make their way to Washington, DC, for the national finals. At that time contestants must be under sixteen years of age and not yet promoted beyond grade eight.

Bee Week isn't all spelling. Competitors also enjoy sightseeing, ice-cream socials, barbecues, and a talent show. In 2014, there were two winners of the bee—a conclusion that has only happened four times in Bee history, and not since 1962. In 2015, this conclusion was repeated when Vanya Shivashankar, a 13-year-old from Olathe, Kansas and Gokul Venkatachalam, a 14-year-old from St. Louis, Missouri shared the spotlight as co-champions having correctly spelled "scherenschnitte" and "nunatak," respectively. Both winners were in their final year of eligibility.

How It Came to Bee

The National Spelling Bee was launched by the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal in 1925. With competitions, cash prizes, and a trip to the nation's capital, the Bee hoped to stimulate "general interest among pupils in a dull subject."

The Scripps Howard News Service took over the Bee in 1941. Over the years, the Bee has grown from a mere 9 contestants to the 2007 high of 286.

What's a Bee?

The word "bee" has long been used to describe a busy gathering of people who come together for a special purpose, such as quilting, spinning, logging, or raising a barn. "Spelling bee" in particular is an American term that came into use by the 1870s.

Many think that this use of "bee" was inspired by the hard-working social insect of the same name. But some scholars believe it comes from the Middle English "bene," meaning a favor, which was sometimes used to describe neighbors helping out with a particular activity.

Spelling bees have been featured on film and stage in recent years. The 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound followed eight real-life contestants to the National Bee, encompassing a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds, and revealing the Bee to be a microcosm of America itself. The National Bee, while not the subject of the film, also plays a key role in 2005's Bee Season. And 2006 has brought Akeelah and the Bee, the story of an African American girl from Los Angeles who finds inner strength and community support in her drive for the National Bee. And while not about the National Bee, a spelling bee is the focus of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a Broadway musical that won two Tony awards in 2005.

The final day of the two-day National Bee has been shown on ESPN for thirteen years. Since 2006, the preliminary rounds of that day have been on ESPN, but the final rounds are aired on ABC in prime time, reflecting the increased popularity of the competition.

The 2013 Bee included a new twist: vocabulary. Once during the preliminaries and once during the semifinals, the expert spellers were subjected to a multiple choice vocabulary test. Adding to the challenge, the qualifiers found out about the new vocabulary portion only weeks before the Bee.

Take our spelling challenge

Check out the winning words that made spellers into national champions the past two decades. Then test your spelling savvy with our spelling quiz!

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