I've always fancied myself a pretty good speller. I mean, not to brag or anything, but I was on Book H in fifth grade, when the majority of my class was still on Books C or D, so...yeah. Decent. I know my their, there, and they're. But I'm not spelling bee good. I didn't grow up with tiger parents who drilled me on etymology, and I didn't study Latin. So I thought I'd be blown away by the list of winning Scripps Spelling Bee Words over the years. Shockingly, they weren't always that hard. Hard for a 9-year-old, maybe. But the original winning words were nothing like the words Scripps is throwing out at kids these days.
The Scripps Spelling Bee finals are on Thursday, and a new champion who can spell much better than most Internet trolls will be crowned. But before that, let's take a look back at some of the winners of the past, and the evolution of spelling bee words. Why are they harder? Is it a symptom of today's kids being pushed too hard, vying for a spot in the best preschool that feeds into the best private school that feeds into Ivy League colleges? Eh, I'm not really here for that. Just check out these words, and if you feel like having some fun, maybe challenge your friend or partner to spell them out loud.
1925 – Gladiolus
I actually learned about this species of flower from the 1991 film Drop Dead Fred. This is not a hard word. It's spelled exactly like it sounds. I wish they were as easy to grow as they were to spell.
1928 – Albumen
Maybe I'm a word nerd for knowing that "albumen" means the white part of the egg. Maybe not. But again, it's spelled just like it sounds. What's with these 1920s kids?
1932 – Knack
Oh, come on, now. I can see where a 5-year-old might miss the K, or even the C, but these are supposed to be the smartest kids in the country! You're telling me "knack" was a tricky word? What's next, "light"?
1937 – Promiscuous
Hello! Now we're getting somewhere. It may not be the most difficult word, but it's a hell of a lot sexier than "albumen." I mean, anything's sexier than albumen, but still... the question is, were the 1930s judges thinking of the slut-shamey definition of "having or characterized by many transient sexual relationships" when they chose this word, or the old-timey definition of "indiscriminate or casual"? Probably the latter.
1940 – Therapy
Was this... was this a new word back then? Times sure are a-changin'.
1948 – Psychiatry
I'm beginning to sense a theme here. Meanwhile, back in 2016, most first-graders know the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
1951 – Insouciant
Oh... OK. I guess this is when Scripps stepped things up a notch. "Insouciant" means "showing a casual lack of concern; indifferent." Like Kanye up there.
1956 – Condominium
Or not? Nah, give the kids a pass on this one; condos weren't even a thing until 1962 (yes, I checked).
1960 – Eudaemonic
Euda-what now? Damn Baby Boomers and their thirst for knowledge. I miss those '20s kids who had shorter words, bring them back. (I looked it up, in case you're curious. It means "conducive to happiness," but if you use it in casual conversation, I can almost guarantee that it won't be.)
1965 – Eczema
Hey, I know this one! And I even know that there's no X in it. At least it wasn't [quickly Googles] psoriasis.
1968 – Abalone
Thank you, Simpsons, for teaching me about this shellfish, which I can't imagine ever serving in a sandwich.
1970 – Croissant
And thank you, Dunkin' Donuts, for teaching me about this pastry, which I can only imagine being served as a sandwich.
1974 – Hydrophyte
Ah, yes, a very useful word. Sometimes I see one growing in a pond, and I'm all, "Look at that lovely hydrophyte!" Or I need some decorations for a fish tank, so I roll up to Petco and ask the cashier, "I beg your pardon, but would you please direct me to your hydrophyte selection, good sir?"
It means aquatic plant and you don't ever need to know that.
1978 – Deification
Did you giggle? Did you think it was that other word for a moment? Me, too. Well this one is "to make a god of," or to deify.
1983 – Purim
It's a Jewish holiday that's literally on the calendar.
1987 – Staphylococci
This is when it starts getting really crazy, and now I understand why nobody ever invited me to enter a spelling bee when I was a kid. Close your eyes and try to spell that word after you just read it. I'll wait.
Are you back for the definition? It's a bacteria. Ever heard of a "staph infection"? That's because your doctor couldn't pronounce "staphylococci."
1991 – Antipyretic
I'm sorry, is the Scripps Spelling Bee only open to children who are pre-med now, or what? An antipyretic is something that prevents a fever, like a cool washcloth, or Tylenol, or more cowbell.
1995 – Xanthosis
Well, that answers that question. How obscure is this medical term? Well, I entered it into the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and it wasn't there. I did eventually find the definition, but it's gross and you don't want or need to hear it, so let's move on. Oh, you're still here? Fine, it's "a yellowish discoloration of degenerating tissues, especially seen in malignant neoplasms." Are you happy now?
2001 – Succedaneum
Another medical word. It means "substitute." As in, "Hey, you, what is a good succedaneum for 'succedaneum'? 'Subsitute.'"
2006 – Ursprache
"A reconstructed, hypothetical parent language, as Proto-Germanic"? Good God, I don't even understand the definition of this word. Congratulations, Scripps, you've made me feel like a complete moron.
2011 – Cymotrichous
I'd like to think that I could sound this out if I needed to, but honestly, when would I ever need to? Why couldn't I just say "with wavy hair"? If we're going to be introducing new words every year, like "twerk" and "bling" and "bae," shouldn't we at least be allowed to retire useless ones? Kind of like a one-in, one-out thing?
2015 – Scherenschnitte
Why? Why would American schoolchildren ever need to know the German word for the art of paper cutting? If you need me, I'll be starting a GoFundMe campaign to provide all the Scripps Spelling Bee contestants with Xboxes, because these poor kids need a break.