This is the week in America of the 2017 National Spelling Bee. It’s an international competition, a national event and quite the saddest of spectacles. It has as much to do with language as the Eurovision Song Contest has to do with great songs. This is an exploitative spectacle driven by performance not content. And when all that matters is the shape of words devoid of meaning then what is a televised spelling bee if not some weird kind of lexical porn?
Those of a grammatically nervous disposition should note that the event happens in America therefore the spellings are in American English. It doesn’t make a lot of difference, to be honest, but you have been warned.
The National Spelling Bee is a contest for kids. There they are, lined up with numbers hanging around their necks looking like a menu for bullies. The youngest contender is a 6-year old.
The winning spellings in 2016 were of gesellschaft and Feldenkrais.
No, me neither. No idea. I had to look them up.
Does spelling matter? Of course, but does it matter that much?
According to the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, Gessellschaft is ‘a social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization’. (Oxford unlike the National Spelling Bee prefers an initial cap).
This is way beyond championship spelling; this is premier league stuff.
Feldenkrais is not even in the OED. It is taken from the Feldenkrais method, an ‘alternative’ system of exercise for physical and mental well-being devised by Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-84).
I bet they weren’t in your 6-,7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year old vocabularies. These are the lexmarks of Midwich Cuckoos.
OK, how about 2015? The winning words that year were nunatak and scherenschnitte.
A nunatak is a rocky outcrop in a field of ice or snow.
Scherenschnitte is the German craft of artistic paper cutting. Not in the OED but to be fair it’s an American competition and the word is in Merriam-Webster. Wowzah! It’s one helluva lot of word too. Gawp at your screen in astonishment as the geeky kid nails it.
2014? feuilleton – part of a printed publication that is devoted to fiction or light criticism – & stichomythia – a dialogue for two characters speaking alternate lines of verse.
This really isn’t the regular English language as you might use it. These are just the words that got spelt by those non-X Factor kids on TV. That was enough. The challenge was just to remember the words. Who cares what it means?
Teach these word-hungry children the joys of language.
Scrolling backwards through the history of winning spellings the first word that I could understand the meaning of without external assistance doesn’t show up until 1999. Defined as a tendency to verbosity (I wonder why I should know this word?) you get logorrhea. Of course, I know it better when it is spelt correctly – with three o’s. I warned you about the US spelling.
What nonsense! Spelling matters. A bit. Of course it does. But not as much as the meaning of words. The whole purpose of a word is what it communicates.
Learning to spell matters a bit. Of course it does. But not at the cost of childhood. Even a childhood enhanced by the celebrity of national TV. There really is something deeply depressing about the notion of the National Spelling Bee. It’s like the parents* haven’t learned the difference between education and indoctrination (* see also: stage mothers and those who groom for junior beauty pageants) and yearn for the reflected glory of their progeny.
Imagine a house of words built by one of these spellers. It’s a flat and square construction because that’s the shape of barely understood words fitting together. After all, why would you want to study the bricks of lingo in detail before you can have seen and experienced some of the inspirational architecture of our common tongue?
& for those bee effs who think that spelling is the bee all and end all, please remember this: Shakespeare, who was pretty good with words, didn’t spell his name the same way two times running.
Now bee off.