MAKING WORDS MATTER…OR “WHAT IS A SPRINGBOK?”

School is just on the verge of beginning again for the 2017-2018 year. For spellers across the nation, this means learning Spell It and the school word lists provided by Scripps. Preparing for spelling bee season is about to begin! And spellers will be more prepared now than ever. Why is this?

Spelling and studying in the past

One of my students once commented that winning words in years past seem a lot easier than they do nowadays. And this is absolutely true. Consider the likes of therapy, knack, and initials. These words are so simple, no word panelist would consider them for a final word list today.

Spellers in years past had much less exposure to larger, more difficult words than they do now. Moreover, the English language has been expanding rapidly, and new words are being added to the dictionary every day. Take the word glitch, for example. Glitch was not a very well-known word over 30 years ago. In fact, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary shows it entered the English language only in 1962. It even tripped up a future national champion. But nowadays, the word is quite commonplace.

Amassing words and word lists

With greater exposure to more complex words – and an increasing abundance of word lists as each year passed – spellers became more well-prepared. Spelling bees by necessity became more difficult. But word lists were not often passed along, and often were just hoarded secretively. Then, once you exhausted those lists, searching for difficult words through the behemothian Webster’s Third New International Dictionary remained an exercise in randomness and near-futility. This was, in large part, how I studied in the last few months preceding my last national bee. Looking through these lists from years ago, it strikes me how many of these words were inappropriate for the bee. My homespun lists included words with variants, words that were overly arcane or obsolete, and words from regional dialects. It was, however, serendipity that I received one of my randomly-studied words – morion – shortly before I won.

Many spellers would point to the Consolidated Word List as a key factor to speller success nowadays. This immense list spans over 24,000 words that have been used in bees dating to 1950. It has been a tremendously valuable document for spellers since its publication in 2004. Truly serious spellers aim to memorize the whole list. It is nearly a foregone conclusion that many national semifinalists and most, if not all, finalists have this list down cold. But the Consolidated Word List would not be as well-known Рand widely disseminated Рwere it not for its presence on the internet itself.

The role of the internet

The internet is the single largest influence on the current generation of spellers. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary is fully accessible online. As a result, the capacity to search for words has made sleuthing exponentially more fruitful. For example, finding all the French words that have to do with ballet can now be done in seconds. Before the internet, this was nearly an impossible task. It certainly was not worth the time looking through the whole dictionary.

The internet makes pointed online searches powerful and simple for the speller. But for the lexicographer in charge of the dictionary, the internet makes editing entries similarly easy. In April of 2016, Merriam-Webster added or revised over 2,000 entries in its online dictionary. In response, Scripps began to take advantage of these new entries in its lists for the 2016-2017 bee season. Then, for the 2017 National Spelling Bee, Scripps made Merriam-Webster Unabridged – the online version of Webster’s Third – the official source for words.

The internet can help with learning how to spell words, but also with placing these words in a proper context. Images and videos can be invaluable toward this goal. For example, typhoon is merely a word in the Asian word list of Spell It until you see a satellite image of this vast storm. It becomes much more memorable when you watch a video of the power a typhoon can unleash. Likewise, the Dutch word springbok may not mean much on its own. But seeing images and videos of this beautiful, graceful African antelope-gazelle (like the one above) makes the word pop. Using the internet this way can also make learning definitions much more effective. It brings spelling away from the realm of rote memorization.