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Why these winning words from US National Spelling bees are so hard to spell

AP Photo/Cliff Owen
  • Thu-Huong Ha
By Thu-Huong Ha


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The United States’ annual nerd pageant is underway.

The 89th Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which kids compete to spell increasingly difficult English words, is a two-day, 13-hour nationally televised event. In past years, millions have tuned into sports channel ESPN to watch barely formed teenagers reason through the unpredictable English language.

Yesterday (May 25) 285 participants 15 and younger took the stage in National Harbor, Maryland to recite words they’ve probably never used in conversation. The finals will conclude tonight at 10pm Eastern US.

“A lot of it is luck, to be totally honest,” says 2006 winner Kerry Close, now a 23-year-old reporter at Money Magazine. “There’s maybe a dozen, maybe more, kids who have a realistic shot of winning,” says Close. “Who actually wins comes down to pretty much who’s asked the right word.”

Close memorized 30,000 words to prepare for her moment in the spotlight, and she says she was still only familiar with about three-quarters of the words that she faced in competition. According to the rules, if a competitor is unfamiliar with a word, he or she may ask for more information, including the definition, the language of origin, and other pronunciations.

Unlike Spanish and Japanese, which have regular patterns of spelling and pronunciation, English as we know it is a Frankenstein of languages, a hodgepodge of words from German, French, Latin, and Greek. Close points to words with Latin and Greek roots as especially tricky. “There’s a lot of rules in those,” she says, “And a lot of rules that are also broken.” Though it might be tempting to go for an obscure lettering, says Close, most of the time the most effective strategy is to guess the simplest answer.

Below are ten of the winning words from previous Scripps bees, and the reason why spelling them is such a feat.

definition: (adjective) committing gross irreverence toward a hallowed person, place, or thing
origins: Anglo-French, Latin
year: 1942

If you know “sacrilegious” has something to do with being not pious, you’d predictably spell this word “sacreligious” to match the spelling of the familiar “religion.” The reversed “e” and “i” are likely to trip you up.

definition: (noun) a system used for sending signals by using two flags that are held in your hands
origins: Greek
year: 1946

In English the “ə” sound (which sounds like “uh”) is very common and called the “schwa.” And because it’s so ubiquitous, its corresponding spelling is hard to predict: Could “semaphore” be spelled with an “a” like in “metaphor,” or an “i” like in “centipede”?

definition: (noun) the shorter area that traverses the long side of a church and that gives the church the shape of a cross when viewed from above
origins: Latin
year: 1954

Here the “s” sound (“ess”) is a serious cause for confusion. Is it like “transgress”? “Trance”? Knowing the Latin origin doesn’t help: “Transcend,” with an “sc,” comes from the Latin “transcendere.”

definition: (adjective) producing happiness: based on the idea of happiness as the proper end of conduct
origins: Greek
year: 1960

If you didn’t take a philosophy class in college, “eudaemonic” could present a real problem. (If you did, the word might trigger the thought, “Is this one of those weird Greek words with a random ‘ae’ in it?”) The middle “ē,” like in “ego,” is particularly tricky because its Greek root, “demon,” is spelled normally.

definition: (noun) an acute or chronic noncontagious inflammatory condition of the skin that is characterized by redness, itching, and oozing vesicular lesions which become scaly, crusted, or lichenified and that is often associated with exposure to chemical or other irritants
origins: Latin, Greek
year: 1965

“Eczema” is a nightmare. It has several pronunciations, some with a “g” sound and some without—”EGGS-uh-muh” compared with “EKS-uh-muh”—so that could clue you in that there are some weird letters in the beginning. But one of the roots is Greek, which is sometimes transliterated with ”k” and “s” and sometimes with “x,” for the same sound. And again you have the schwa sound in the middle, which could easily be “i” instead of an “e.”

definition: (noun) a chronic skin disease characterized by circumscribed red patches covered with white scales
origins: Latin, Greek
year: 1982

“Psoriasis,” pronounced “ser-EYE-uh-sis,” is a trickster. If you know the Greek and Latin roots, that might help you with the “ps” here, as in “psychology.” But, also, there’s “cyclops” and “sordid” and plenty more Latin-rooted words without “ps” at the front. So, yeah.

definition: (noun) any bacterium of the genus of nonmotile gram-positive spherical eubacteria that occur singly, in pairs or tetrads, or in irregular clusters and as now usually restricted comprise a few parasites of skin and mucous membranes
origins: Latin
year: 1987

Yikes. “Staphylococci” is pronounced “staff-uh-low-COCK-eye.” If you know the root words “staphylē,” meaning bunch of grapes, and “coccus,” originally meaning grain or seed, great! But if not, just knowing that the roots are Latin would be of no use here: There are no hard and fast rules about “ph” versus “f” or “y” versus “i” in Latin.

definition: (noun) an artist of a 16th century woodcut technique in which forms are defined in terms of light and shade through the use of several blocks one of which is used to print deep, sometimes black, shadows and the others moderated shades of a single color
origins: Italian, Latin
year: 1998

If you knew “chiaroscurist,” pronounced “kee-yar-uh-SKYUR-ist,” was Italian, or you’d heard of the chiaroscuro technique before, you might be able to just change the “o” to an “ist” and have no problem. But for everyone else, you might guess a “k” at the beginning. And then there’s that pesky schwa.

definition: (noun) a rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery
origins: German, French
year: 2010

“Stromuhr,” pronounced “STROW-more,” is a common word on the spelling bee study list, says Close, so competitors come with it memorized. But “for a logical way of puzzling that out,” she says, “I actually couldn’t tell you.” The German root “uhr,” meaning clock, could help here, but if you also have French in the mix, you might guess “ure” for the ending. And if you have none of that information, the spelling is simply ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

definition: (noun) the art of cutting paper into decorative designs
origins: German
year: 2015

Scheiße. “Scherenschnitte,” pronounced “share-en-shnit-uh,” would be a challenge unless you’re familiar with German. An American ear wants to put an “a” at the end for the schwa, like a Brita filter, and an “sh” everywhere else. But “sch,” the double “t,” and the “e” are all quite common in German.

Word banners by Quartz’s Elan Kiderman.

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