Spelling contests have remained a feature in American life since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock — but is peaking at 12 years old all it’s cracked up to be?
Sixty-two-year-old Brad Williams remembers what he ate for breakfast and lunch — Corn Flakes and hamburgers, respectively — on May 3, 1969, the day he won the Wisconsin state spelling bee after spelling grisailleand lamprey correctly. He also, miraculously, remembers exactly what he was doing on my birthday, September 2, 1978. “That was a Saturday,” he tells me (correctly) without hesitation. “My older brother and I were visiting his girlfriend in central Wisconsin, and we watched The Dick Cavett Show on public TV the night before.” Robin Williams was promoting Mork & Mindy, he adds, which was premiering the following week.
Give Brad Williams a date, any date, and he can usually tell you not only what he was doing but what world events happened that day. He’s considered by scientists to have one of the best memories in the world — one of only 25 people on the planet to be confirmed as having a condition called hyperthymestic syndrome, or the ability to remember an abnormally large number of life experiences and world events in vivid detail. (He’s banned from trivia nights at most locals bars in La Crosse, Wisconsin.)
Williams credits his spelling prowess in large part to the hyperthymesia, since if the word in question happened to be on a study list, he could instantly visualize it on the page. His state victory in 1969 earned the then 12-year-old a spot at the 42nd Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., where he was eliminated in the fourth round. But only because the pronouncer (i.e., the person reading the words) mispronounced palliative. He read it pailey-ative rather than pally-ative, and Williams didn’t ask if there were other ways to pronounce the word, which is a common question now. He mistakenly tried to spell it like paleolithic.
Despite his defeat, Williams returned home to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, a champion. The 4-foot-5 kid had a trophy nearly half his size in his bedroom and considers winning the state bee as one of his life’s major accomplishments. “It was good for me for a long time and still is,” he explains. While it didn’t earn him a ride in a convertible in the local parade, it definitely gave him more confidence, which he still draws on today as a radio reporter and pronouncer of the state bee for the last 40 years and running.
“I’m a person who always knows when something’s not spelled right,” he says with a hint of dismay. He considers it to be “keeping people honest,” or at least well-informed. He politely corrected an acupuncturist in L.A., for example, after reading a sign out front promising to treat “nausea, anxiety and importance” (instead of “impotence”). That said, he’s learned that unsolicited orthographic assistance isn’t always met warmly by adults. “People don’t like it too much if you go around being a spell-splainer, so I try to soften the corrections with a little humor,” he says.
“My rule is never to correct anybody’s spelling publicly,” adds Michael Kerpan, who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1965 after spelling eczemacorrectly as a 13-year-old. Instead, the67-year-old retired attorney tells me he sends Facebook messages, typically starting with, “You might want to know that…” Similarly, just as he hesitates mentioning that he went to Harvard, he doesn’t disclose his spelling bee victory to people until he’s known them for a while.
There were, though, some immediate benefits to being a national spelling champion. After returning to his high school in Tulsa, he became “completely protected” by all of the jocks, who leaned on him to make sure their term papers were scrubbed of errors. “I had battles with my freshman English teacher because I corrected their spelling,” he recalls. “We didn’t have the friendliest relationship.”
While the popularity of the bee has waxed and waned, spelling contests have remained a feature in American life since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock according to James Maguire, author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds. It was invariably a part of Colonial education throughout the 1700s and 1800s, he writes, and the term “bee” referred to many different social events — e.g., “quilting bee,” “barn-raising bee” and “corn-husking bee” — in which an entire community came together, like bees in a hive, for a common goal. In 1875, the Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, sponsored a huge spelling bee with festivities beginning with a humorous soliloquy by Mark Twain.
“Some people have an idea that correct spelling can be taught, and taught to anybody,” Twain remarked. “That is a mistake. The spelling faculty is born in man, like poetry, music and art. It is a gift; it is a talent. People who have this talent in high degree need only see a word once in print and it is forever photographed upon their memory. They cannot forget it. People who haven’t it must be content to spell more or less like thunder, and expect to splinter the dictionary wherever the orthographic lightning happens to strike.”
The first national spelling bee was held 25 years later in Cleveland on June 29, 1908. A 500-boy choir sang, three bands performed and one newspaper enthused that “thousands of electric lights will furnish illumination.” Marie Bolden, a 14-year-old African-American daughter of a Cleveland mail carrier, won the competition with a perfect score. Perhaps due to the shock of a black contestant besting all of her white competitors, Maguire suggests the next national spelling bee wasn’t organized until 1925. The LouisvilleCourier-Journal sponsored it — the forerunner of today’s Scripps National Bee, which has been held every spring until the present day, except for a three-year hiatus during World War II.
Frank Neuhauser, an 11-year-old from Louisville, won the 1925 Bee by acing the word gladiolus. He grew up to become a patent attorney, and at age 88, he attended the 2002 National Bee. “The words are, in my judgement, much more difficult,” he told CBS News. Case in point: The 1929 Bee was won with the word knack, while Laurel Kuykendall took the 1940 crown after spelling an even more elementary word — therapy.
There were, though, some brain benders along the way. In 1960, for instance, 13-year-old Henry Feldman spelled eudaemonic for the win. “I’d been studying a pamphlet they circulated — ‘Words of the Champions’ — and eudaemonic was included on the back page,” Feldman tells me, noting he was feted as a hero in his hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee after his win. It was more or less immediately post-Sputnik, he recalls, and kids in town were told to study hard in order to beat the Russians. Believing that “bright children are our future,” he says the city widely celebrated his academic accomplishment, electing him “mayor for the day.”
Along those lines, at his 50th high school reunion a couple of years ago, a guy walked up to him and explained they were boxing partners in gym class. “I knocked you flat,” he said. “My first reaction was, ‘My life is over! I’ve killed the spelling champion!’”
Feldman says the only real downer of his adolescent achievement is captured in an old Peanuts cartoon he keeps on his office wall. In it, Linus explains to Charlie Brown that he’s the best speller in his class and predicts a future job in spelling. Of course, Feldman notes, such jobs don’t exist. “Spelling is a kid thing,” he explains. “They don’t teach it in high school, and there’s no spelling major in college. I had a sense early on that to identify with it too strongly would be a dead end.” And so he downplayed his national victory as he got older and didn’t mention it on his college application, imagining an admissions officer rolling his eyes thinking, That’s very nice, but this is college.
Now a 72-year-old biostatistician at Boston Children’s Hospital, Feldman says the heightened attention to detail he applied to spelling is related to his career working with data. “Doctors I work with collect lots of data and often don’t know how to make a story out of it. There’s a relationship between the skill of parsing the structure of language and parsing the structure of information and getting to the heart of it. That’s sort of abstract, but I’m an abstract person.”
There’s a life lesson in there too, he adds, in “dealing with luck, dealing with circumstances that you can’t control, but being as prepared as you can.”
“There’s such a component of luck,” agrees Jonathan Knisely, who won the national Bee in 1971 at age 12 (shalloon) and calls its “a total crap shoot.” The 60-year-old radiation oncologist was featured in the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which he says has resulted in him getting ribbed by patients. “If we’re having coffee with our residents, they sometimes clink a glass and mockingly announce, ‘Did you know Dr. Knisely won the National Spelling Bee?’ For them, it’s like knowing someone who won a $50,000 scratch-off lottery ticket, or a girl who won Miss America.”
Knisely says being a spelling champ got him a small amount of notoriety in high school, but “it wasn’t like I’d won the pass, punt and kick competition and all the cheerleaders suddenly wanted to sit at my lunch table.”
That said, he admits he still includes it on his CV. He also mentioned the victory on his undergraduate application to Yale, where he was quickly tapped by friends as a go-to proofreader thanks to his ability to scan the printed page and have misspelled words jump out at him. Back then, all papers were typed on Corrasable Bond paper, which had a thin coating, so if you misspelled a word, you could remove the error with an eraser and roll the carriage of the typewriter back to correct the spelling. “That was the technological fix before spell-check, and my services were in high demand in the freshman dorm,” he recalls.
Speaking of spell-check, I ask Knisely if the ability to correctly formulate words is something we should even care about in 2019. Absolutely, he quickly responds. “Let’s say that you’re writing a note to your girlfriend’s mom thanking her for letting you use the beach house. You want to write it in pen, of course, because that’s what grownups do, and having a misspelled word will make mom think, Fuck, my daughter’s going out with a moron.” Also, cautions Tracey Sturgal, a linguist professor and director of business communication at Marquette University, spell-check isn’t perfect. “People still have to have a certain level of spelling competence,” she explains. “The number one spelling error I get in college papers is when students flip definitely with defiantly, which is surely a spell-check error.”
Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, a professor of professional writing at Michigan State University, tells me that while we don’t talk about spelling as important, as the thousands of corrections suggested on Facebook posts every day indicate, people still care deeply about it. “There are always doomsayers who argue that the sky is falling, but it’s just more obvious now when you make a mistake,” she says. “Twenty-five years ago, when you wrote a letter to your grandma, if you spelled something wrong, she’d be your only audience. Today, if you post a status message on your grandma’s Facebook wall, a lot more people will see your mistake.”
Of all the champions I spoke with, Jacques Bailly, who won the Scripps Spelling Bee in 1980 (elucubrate), has maintained the closest relationship to his title in adulthood. A professor of classics at the University of Vermont, Bailly has also served as the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer since 2003. So if there is such a thing as The Voice of American Spelling, it’s Bailly’s mid-timbered pipes. “When I joined the Bee, I kind of had an attitude,” he recalls, explaining that in his view, the words had become too hard, too early in the competition.
Thus, when he gained an official role with the Bee, along with now Executive Director Paige Kimble, they pushed for easier early rounds, as well as a vocabulary component that requires defining words in addition to spelling them.
These days, the hardest words to spell are what he calls “pasta words” (e.g., orecchiette and farfalle). “Those are tricky because you can’t just build them like Legos from roots. So while otorhinolaryngologist might sound like a difficult word, for the finalists, it’s a gift because it’s what we call ‘figurable.’ And yet, just because the pasta words are hard, they weren’t hard enough for our eight co-champions this year.”
He’s referring to the eight-way tie in the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which some have called “participation trophy culture at its worst.” Ties have become more common. The tournament had its first co-victors since 1962 in 2014, and after that, three more years have ended in multiple champs: 2015, 2016 and 2019. Seven of the eight champions were of Indian descent, and South Asian-Americans have come out on top each of the past 12 years.
The key to Indian kids’ success, Bailly says, is a culture that instills a drive for mastery of the English language, with numerous regional spelling competitions throughout the year held by the North South Foundation, a nonprofit providing disadvantaged children living in India with college scholarships. Conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby has mockingly called this America’s “vast diversity-industrial complex.”
“Nonsense,” Feldman says. “[Jacoby] twisted their success into a weapon to tout ‘meritocracy’ and bash affirmative action and diversity-promoting programs. If I were one of those young champions, I’d resent his co-opting my achievement to advance his mean-spirited social theories. In fact, I am a former champion, and I do resent it.”
It was a rare instance of 72-year-old Feldman flexing his orthographic knowledge. The only other time he taps into his rare talent is when he’s doing word puzzles online with his wife. She spells some wrong, but he tries not to act like an expert. And for good reason: When it comes to spelling, he says, “I’ve had nothing to prove since I was 13.”