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January, 2008

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The Order Of Letters
Buzzing the bees
By  Penelope Jensen

Championship spelling has recently embedded itself in popular culture.
"spelling, [mass noun] - the process or activity of writing or naming the letters of a word."
Oxford Dictionary Of English, Second Edition, Revised

While in primary school, I took great pride in my ability to spell English words correctly. I never fathomed the possibility that such a pastime would become a popular spectator sport by the time I was in my thirties. The enthusiasm of the movie-going public for Spellbound and then Akheela And The Bee took me by surprise. Who knew?

As a wordsmith and editor, I practice my love of language constantly. Although I still value the correct spelling of words, I now rely mainly on dictionaries to steer the right combination of letters into place. So it boggles my mind that there are entire national and international events centered around a child's ability to spell words, the meanings of which they may not have yet experienced in their limited life spans.

Scratching my head over this phenomenon, I was moved to do a little research. I found a video clip of Rebecca Sealfon's exuberant win of the 1997 National Spelling Bee (USA). Watching her check the origins of the word she had been asked to spell and then blurt out each letter with measured intention is inspiring. As I said, I took pride in my spelling when I was young; but Rebecca clearly has a passion for it to a degree shared by few.

Perhaps the best-known bee is the Scripps National Spelling Bee held in Washington, D.C. every summer since 1925, except for the three years between 1943 and 1945 during World War II. Although this is technically a national bee based in the United States of America, it has an international reach and influence. The E.W. Scripps Company in conjunction with 286 sponsors from the United States, Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Guam, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Bahamas, and American Samoa administer the not-for-profit tournament.

Sponsors – usually high-profile organizations associated with educational promotion in the surrounding community – are charged with coordinating regional spelling contests. Community schools often partner with sponsors in arranging and hosting these local bees based on word lists, study materials, and rules distributed by the headquarters office in Cincinnati, Ohio. The finalists from the regional contests converge in Washington D.C. for the ultimate battle of spelling prowess.

The officially stated purpose of Scripps National Spelling Bee is, ". . . to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabularies, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives." While this is a noble purpose, the recent publicity around the event generated by movies and news articles has created a surge of interest bringing it to the forefront of popular culture. Perhaps it can be cool to be nerdy. Most likely, the interest is in the sport of winners and losers rather than the actual proper spelling and usage of the English language. No matter; those who arrive in D.C. undeniably have an understanding of the language beyond the norm.

CanSpell facilitates the involvement of students, parents, and teachers who want to get involved with the international fascination of championship spelling. It's the overarching organization that helps to coordinate sponsors and contests regionally across Canada. The regional competitions culminate in the CanWest CanSpell Spelling Bee, and the CanWest CanSpell winner goes on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

During 2006, CanWest also operated the Raise-a-Reader Campaign and collected $2.24 million across Canada for family literacy initiatives. For more information about Raise-a-Reader, visit

Whether you are interested in spelling for practical reasons, are an avid fan of the spelling bee, or find the whole pursuit annoying, there is no escape from the fact that written language has an agreed upon form and there will always be "the right way" to spell something. And that applies to any written language. No good making the argument that as long as you are getting your point across, it's irrelevant if "i" or "e" comes first. The only winner of the spelling bee is the one who knows how to order the letters just right.

"bee, [with modifier] - a meeting for communal work or amusement."
Oxford Dictionary Of English, Second Edition, Revised

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Penelope Jensen considers herself a citizen of the world, aligning herself at this moment with the purposes of IN, where you'll find her writing articles and interviewing authors, among other things. You can reach Penny at: 

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