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Who Put the “Bee” in ‘Spelling Bee’?

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The common belief is the word ‘bee’ in ‘spelling bee’ is derived from the social and industrious behavior of the insect; however, experts have concluded the word has much more history and explanation.

A brief history of the usage of the word ‘bee’ must be established to correctly understand how today’s meaning of the word was conjured up.

The words ‘been’ and ‘bean’ were variations of ‘boon’ which meant “voluntary help, given to a farmer by his neighbor in time of harvest.” Furthermore, at one time ‘been’ was plural for ‘bee’ in some dialects.

Nonetheless, ‘bee’ in this sense was used in the USA in the mid 18th century for communal work, mainly for help with harvesting on farms. This was common since labor resources were not available to perform complete harvests for crops. Bees turned into social gatherings with food and entertainment as payment for the labor assistance. They were also competitive in some situations to motivate people to work.

Consequently, many of the activities where people would gather for communal work became known as a ‘bee’ of some type. Examples include: husking-bee (husking ears of corn), quilting-bee, raising-bee (barn raisings), apple-bee (collecting and storing apples), etc.

In 1874, spelling contests became extremely popular, often referred to as spelling fever, due to the literacy being encouraged as a patriotic duty and partly to the widespread use of Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book. The title of spelling bee was not established yet since ‘bees’ were still associated with communal manual work.

The term spelling bee began to be used as we do today after recitals of the book The Spelling Bee as a pronunciation exercise soon became a public competition in Philadelphia. The contest was a success. Europeans began to host similar competitions, which Americans began to call spelling bees.

The USA held their first spelling match in Birmingham on July 17th, 1876 and titled it a ‘Spelling Bee’. Although, it was not a hit with the Yankees, these types of competition began to spread throughout the U.S. and were titled ‘Spelling Bees’.

The popularity of the term caused the reformation of the word ‘bee’ to mean a public contest of knowledge.   Events like ‘history bee’ and ‘geographical bee’ began to emerge, with a ‘math bee’ being added in the 1950s. The modern national “Spelling Bee” contest dates from 1925.

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