The National Spelling Bee, an American tradition since 1925, will take place this month from May 27 through May 29. The National Spelling Bee was originally created to encourage students to excel in the otherwise (seemingly) mundane task of spelling words in the English language. It became the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1941 after The E. W. Scripps Company took over the sponsorship. In order to qualify for the national competition, students must win regional spelling competitions in their home states. These competitions are organized by sponsors, which are usually businesses, community organizations, or colleges and universities. These sponsors also pay for their spelling champion to travel to Washington, DC, for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

As the national competition approaches, all eyes will be on Kush Sharma, the boy who beat his competitor Sophia Hoffman after an unheard-of two-day, 95-round match to win his place in the national bee. On February 22, Hoffman and Sharma made history when they competed in the Jackson County Spelling Bee in Missouri. The competition originally began with 25 contestants, but was narrowed down to Sharma, a seventh grader from the Frontier School of Innovation, and Hoffman, a fifth-grader from Highland Park Elementary, after nineteen rounds.

No one could have predicted the epic spelling match that ensued between the two students. After 66 rounds, Hoffman and Sharma had gone through all of the words that were given to them by the judges. They proceeded to spell 20 additional words that the judges had selected from the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The contestants, audience and judges were all shocked by their progress. Playing for 66 rounds is a big feat, considering last year’s Jackson County competition only lasted 21 rounds before a champion was named.

The spelling bee resumed on March 8, after about a two-week break. The Kansas City Public Library was packed with spectators. In fact, there were so many people who came out to see the spelling bee that some of them had to watch the spelling bee from a video cast in the lobby. After 28 rounds, Sophia misspelled the word stifling. She was as baffled by her misspelling of the word as the audience, considering she had managed to spell more challenging words such as schadenfreude and barukhzy. Kush went on to the twenty-ninth round and spelled definition (a word that we seem to have foreseen in the title of our coverage of the bee last year) correctly, solidifying his spot in the national competition.

Kush will be spelling against hundreds of other state finalists this year at the eighty-seventh Scripps National Spelling Bee. Hopefully, he will be able to demonstrate the endurance and accuracy he did at the local level. However, this year’s competition isn’t only about being able to spell in front of an audience. The contestants are also being scored on vocabulary tests taken before the competition. The scores from these tests are then incorporated into the student’s overall score. If Kush does succeed, he will win $30,000 from Scripps, a $2,500 US savings bond and complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, and $2,000 worth of reference works from Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Did You Know?
The term bee is a strange word to represent a competition. The first known reference to the word bee in print was in 1769. However, it was probably used in common speech for years before it was actually printed on paper. Some scholars speculate that the word originates from the Old English word bēn, which meant “a prayer” or “a favor.”

In America, a bee refers to “a gathering of people for a specific purpose, a quilting bee”, or, according to Scripps, “a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.), usually to help one person or family.” During the American Revolution, some women would compete in ”]spinning bees [PDF download]. There were also apple bees, husking bees and logging bees throughout the nineteenth century.