The National Spelling Bee and the Evolution of Everyday Conversation

Hi. My name is Melanie and I am laodicean – pococurante, even – when it comes to being cymotrichous.

That. Sounded. Weird. But one day it may not.

I just used two winning words from previous National Spelling Bees, the 2012 edition is currently taking place in Washington, DC, and on your ESPN screens. Laodicean, spelled correctly by Kavya Shivashankar in the 2009 final, means indifference or a person with such an attitude. Pococurante also means indifferent, and it was the winning word in 2003, spelled correctly by Sai R. Gunturi. Cymotrichous, spelled by Sukanya Roy for the 2011 win, means having wavy hair.

I really am indifferent when it comes to having wavy hair, a condition that happens a lot during a typical DC summer. On the other hand, word nerd that I am, the National Spelling Bee has always excited me. What excites me even more is looking at the list of previous winning words from the National Spelling Bee and recognizing a good many of them as words that we use today in everyday speech. The winning words are a glimpse into our evolving vocabulary, the globalization of the English language, and the creeping of pop culture words into our dictionaries.

I love how the winning word for 1927 was “luxuriance” while the one for 1929 was “asceticism.” It amuses me how little Jean Trowbridge spelled “interning” correctly to win in 1936, while her successor, Waneeta Beckley, won with the word “promiscuous” in 1937. Irony is so easily found in hindsight.

“Condominium,” such an everyday word in today’s conversations, was the word winner in 1956, while “sycophant” a word that brings to my mind a few characters from “Mad Men” won the Bee in 1964, right about the same year in which that hit TV show is set. The “Me Generation” is reflected in several winning words during the 1970s: croissant (1970), narcolepsy (1976), deification (1978).

After a lull in the early 1980s, when the words “Purim” (1983) and “luge” (1984) were enough to win, the words start getting harder. But many are still very recognizable as words we use today: staphylococci (1987; ok, we use “staph” when describing the infection, but it’s still common); lyceum (1992); and chiaroscurist (1998), to name a few.

I wonder if this year’s winning word will become a term that we in 5, 10, or 20 years will use on a regular basis? That will require some real prospicience (2002).

Take a look at the full list of winning words and their spellers here.

One comment

  1. Nico says:

    I feel like inflicting torture on contestants of any particular event is common in competitions across the board. Bringing out the worst in schadenfreude in all of us who like to watch them. The Tour de France comes to mind as something similar. The event organizers make that contest harder and harder every year, putting a sadistic series of climbs together so those of us watching can thrill in seeing them suffer. Maybe that’s what’s going on here – seeing them squirm under words that would make the rest of us throw in the towel makes for better watching.

    At first glance it seems particularly mean-spirited but seeing the best rise above and become victorious is the payoff for the spectators, and also for the organizers who continually up the antes. BTW, chiaroscurist… my new favorite word.

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