SIRIASIS

Some spelling bee words are just plain mean. Really mean. In this category, I place the “either you know it or you don’t” words…the ones that are specifically on the pronouncer’s list just to eliminate a hapless speller…or to differentiate the excellent from the merely good. But the word siriasis deserves more than just membership in this group…it is one of the cruelest words I know.

Siriasis has been given at least twice in the bee’s history – once in 1989, and again in 2014. I’m certain, though, that given how difficult this word is, the word panel has included it more than just these two years. In both cases, spellers were eliminated in exactly the same way.

Why is siriasis such a bugaboo? Four reasons:

  • It’s one of these words that you either know or you don’t. Guessing the correct spelling is very difficult.
  • It’s a homonym to a more common word: psoriasis.
  • Psoriasis was the winning word in the 1982 National Spelling Bee, making it even more widely known among spellers.
  • Both words are medical terms. In this case, siriasis is another term for sunstroke, while psoriasis is a skin disease.

It’s probably no surprise that in 1989 and 2014, both spellers who received the word spelled it as if it were psoriasis. And although rare, it is possible to see previous winning words at the national level; I’ve seen eudaemonic, smaragdine, and esquamulose appear here and there…but most interestingly, all three showed up at the 1987 and 1988 Scripps NSB. (Random bee coincidence #2: these were consecutive winning words from 1960 to 1962.) Having said that, psoriasis is, again, a fairly common word. Although it is a good word to know, I’d be surprised if it found its way back to the national stage.

But not siriasis. You’ll see this word again in the years to come.