In the past, words with variants were seen as words to avoid when studying for the spelling bee, since they would not appear in a bee. I’m not sure of the original logic behind it, but if I were on a word panel, I would have rather kept the bee as fair and simple as possible by ensuring that all spellers received a word that had only one correct spelling. This would ensure that 1) all spellers had the same chance to get a word right, and 2) the judges would only have to pay attention to one spelling per word. However, in 2013, Scripps began to entertain the use of words with variants, such as idyll, which can also correctly be spelled idyl. This word, along with three other words with a variant spelling, found their way onto the school list and in the hands of students who, if they received these words in a bee, now had two chances to spell the word correctly. (For the record: taboo/tabuenterprise/enterprize, and anemic/anaemic.) Even at the national level, two words with variants found their way into the preliminaries written test. Since 2013, variants have been established as fair game for studying. Which, honestly, is as it should be: there are so many words in common usage that have variants that it would be a shame to avoid learning them. Besides, to keep things simple, one only needs to spell one version of the word correctly.

Starting this year, however, a new development came up with the lists from Scripps: words that are new in the dictionary. By this, I mean new in the online unabridged dictionary, not new in the print version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, whose latest edition was printed in 2002. The word Icarus found its way into the school list for 2017. (Icarus is the name of the Greek mythological character who escaped a maze with his father Daedalus by crafting wings from wax and feathers. He then plunged to his death in the ocean when he flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and his wings fell apart.) It does not appear in the print version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, copyright 2002. But it does appear in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary online, denoted as a new word by a red box that states NEW. With this one word, Scripps at least opened the door to entertaining new words for the bee.

This trend of using new words was further confirmed this year by the appearance of other new words in district and regional bees such as poutine and mochi. So again: spellers who have their eyes on qualifying for the National Spelling Bee would be wise to obtain access to the Unabridged Dictionary online (it is not free, but considering the value of learning new words, the cost is nominal and well worth the trouble) and start learning new words. It is not possible at this time to search solely for new words, nor have I seen any indication that Merriam-Webster will make such a search possible, so one will stumble upon such words serendipitously. But this is part of the fun of exploring the dictionary: finding that red box that says NEW is like finding new treasure.

I will leave it to more philosophical pundits to expound upon the meaning of Scripps choosing to abandon the print version of the dictionary and use the online Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. After all, such a development does make one wonder about the implied obsolescence of print dictionaries as opposed to the easily-edited and updated version. It’s an interesting point to ponder, but elsewhere, and perhaps in another post.

Good luck, and happy studying!