Ben Zimmer reports that the Scripps National Spelling Bee this year will test contestants’ knowledge of definitions along with spelling; he quotes Paige Kimble as follows:

By making definitions more central, Scripps is pushing back against perceptions that getting to the nationals involves nothing more than prodigious feats of word memorization. Truth be told, top spellers do need to appreciate meaning, to break down a word into classical roots or tease apart the spelling of similar-sounding words. But their mastery of spelling still comes off as little more than a stunt, like memorizing a deck of cards. That plays into the popular view of the bee as a nail-biting spectacle.

It’s offstage for now, but Ben says “If all goes well, we could see vocabulary questions in the televised portion of the nationals in coming years.” I hope so; much as I love spelling bees, the “stunt” aspect has always bothered me a bit, and this seems like a good addition.


  1. They should have an international spelling bee in the Olympics where they make you spell things in Korean and Finnish. Or perhaps the Winter Olympics would be a good time, in front of a blazing fire, with a version for dyslexics in the paralympics.

  2. Hehe, AJP, I like it! What bothers me about the Bees is that it flies in the face of the statistical science, leaving so much to chance that it starts to feel more like a lottery than a careful comparison of the skills.
    We used to run mini-bees in high school physics class, but there, the point wasn’t a championship status; you simply earned more credits by lingering onstage longer. It was called, in a characteristically Russian way, расстрел (execution by a firing squad) because the contestants were lined up against the wall (к стенке) and “killed off”

  3. Tango ought to be in the Olympics too.

  4. dearieme says

    Beach Tango, Synchronised Tango in swimming pools, Tango on Bicycles …

  5. dearieme says

    Equestrian Tango.
    Not to mention the Winter Olympic Tangos.

  6. Synchronised Tango in swimming pools – go for it LOL. Just don’t touch the actual thing. It’s a perennial holy war (kholivar, as they say in Russian) with the topics spanning “do you compete” / “can we compete” / “no, really, why can’t we compete” / “not even if we are brain-dead morons?” / “let’s compete anyway”. And it can get me cyber.yelling in a nick of time. So much so that in fact, I already needed to remind myself that the Languagehatties must have no clue about the raw nerve being touched here, just to calm down some 🙂 🙂

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Winter Tango Biathalon, where as soon as the music stops you throw yourself down into a prone position for some target-shooting.

  8. That’s a great idea, JW. Skiskyting or biathlon takes up 12 Olympic medals, nearly all won by Norway, and is one of the most boring sports I’ve ever watched for about 5 minutes.

  9. Not to be confused with Whiskey Foxtrot Tango, of course.

  10. I was under the impression that Whisky Tango Foxtrot sometimes in fact means being confused.

  11. Well the Norwegians certainly have a much better name for biathlon than English does. I just asked my daughter if she knew what biathlon was and her reply was, “Some combination of two sports,I’m sure.” When asked she had no idea about either of the two sports. If we spoke Norwegian, she would know which two sports.

  12. Actually, there really is Tango at the Winter Olympics. It’s part of Ice Dancing, which is a completely different event from the far more familiar Pair Figure Skating.
    But I love the idea of Tango Biathlon. I’m still giggling whenever I picture it. I’ve managed to watch biathalon for more than 5 minutes at a time, but that might only be because they won’t show it for more than ten minutes at a time here in the States before cutting away to some other event.

  13. Trond Engen says

    When I did my national service in a coastguard ship radio, long ago, my shipmates found it immensely funny when I picked up the radio and called “Juliet Whiskey Tango”.

  14. Isidora: Just so, and if you say Whiskey Foxtrot Tango, you are certainly even more confused.

  15. if you say Whiskey Foxtrot Tango, you are certainly even more confused
    🙂 but if confusion becomes an Olympic sport, this might not be enough to win!
    And hmm, biathlon is about the only sport I can watch on TV – just never realized how weird *that* must be 🙂

Speak Your Mind