How Do They Pick the Words for the National Spelling Bee?

By looking in shopping catalogs.

How do they choose the words for spelling bees?

The final round of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee will be broadcast Thursday night on ABC. Contestants in the preliminary rounds have already faced such lexicographic puzzlers as onychorrhexis, mostaccioli, and schottische. How do bee organizers come up with the tournament’s word list?

By committee. The highly guarded process is coordinated by Carolyn Andrews, the bee’s “word list manager” since 1998. (Andrews, a former English teacher and technical editor, is also the mother of the 1994 bee champion.) Twelve people are involved in compiling more than 1,000 words for the national bee over the course of the year leading up to the event. The group’s membership remains mysterious, though Paige Kimble, the director of the spelling bee, did confirm that she is ultimately responsible for the content of the list and that James Lowe, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster—whose Third New International Dictionaryis the bible of the bee—and Barrie Trinkle, the 1973 champ, both participate.

Details on how the group does its work are fuzzy. Two sources provide some insight into the process from a few years ago—a 2007 document that used to be hosted on the bee’s Web site (click here for the cached version of that write-up) and James Maguire’s 2006 book American Bee. According to those sources, members of the “word panel” would spend the summer months keeping their eyes open for good spelling-bee words as they read, listened to the radio, and went about their daily lives. (Shopping catalogs, which often feature arcane words in their product descriptions, seemed to be a particularly fruitful source.) In the fall, the panel wouldmeet for two days to compile a rough draft of the list. Each word would be rated by level of difficulty, using factors like length, whether it can be spelled phonetically or has obvious etymological roots, and how “fashionable” it is. For example, cortege, meaning “funeral procession,” got knocked down in the rankings after Princess Di died and the term appeared in numerous press reports.

In the winter, Andrews would prune the list. Then there would be another two-day panel meeting in February before the list went to Jacques Bailly, the bee’s official “pronouncer.” Bailly would spend the next several months practicing pronunciations and compiling his own set of notes. In May, the bee judgeswould review the final word list and, in a final meeting the day before the bee, approve it for competition.

The process may work somewhat differently today, however. Kimble, the spelling bee director, stressed that the process described above is out-of-date, though she declined to elaborate further. She did tell the Explainer that the panelists never consult old spelling bee lists as they come up with new words. After 84 years of competition, some words do end up reappearing. You can look for these in the 794-page “Consolidated Word List,” which was compiled in 2004 and includes competition words dating back to 1950. Some examples: campodeiform (having an elongated and flattened shape), firkin (a British unit of weight for butter equal to 56 pounds), and wobbulator (a testing device for radio sets).

Words with foreign origins—like 2006’s winning word, Ursprache—are always popular. (Foreign roots can be wielded in tricky ways, though: One contestant got dinged in the preliminaries this year for misspelling kakistocracy, or “government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens,” with a c, like cacophony—both Greek-derived words come from kakos, meaning “bad.”) Carolyn Andrews has also expressed a fondness for eponyms—words derived from proper names, like sandwich and malapropism—and blended words, like netiquette.

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Explainer thanks Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus.