On the bogusness of reporting the winning word in a spelling bee


Whenever the United States media report on a spelling bee (typically, the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the best-known spelling bee in the country), they always report on the "winning word". But the winning word is a bogus metric because the winning word in real life tends to be comparatively easy. It's the penultimate word that is the hard one.

In nearly all spelling bees, when the field narrows to just two contestants, if one contestant misses a word, the other contestant must spell that word plus a bonus word to win. Sort of like volleyball. The bonus word is not necessarily a hard word; in fact, just by the principle of regression to the mean, it is likely to be a comparatively easy word. The hard word is the one that knocked out the second-place winner. Look at it this way: Nobody misspelled the winning word, so how hard can it be?

Consider this hypothetical spelling bee:

Judge: The word is "chiaroscuro".
Player A: c-h-i-a-r-u-s-c-u-r-o.
Judge: I'm sorry, that's incorrect. Player B?
Player B: c-h-i-a-r-o-s-c-u-r-o.
Judge: Correct. And your next word is "dog".
Player B: d-o-g.
Judge: Congratulations, Player B, you're the winner.

[9am: How embarrassing. I misspelled "chiaroscuro".]

The newspapers all report that "The winning word was 'dog'," and people reading the newspaper say, "Pshaw, I don't know why people get all worked up about this spelling bee thing. Even I can spell 'dog'."

For example, in 2005, the "winning word" was "appoggiatura", a word any musician can spell in their sleep. The penultimate word was the somewhat more challenging "roscian".

This year's Scripps National Spelling Bee will be held on May 31 and June 1, 2006.

Comments (33)
  1. Giulio says:

    If "chiaruscuro" is from Italian, then we’d say and write c-h-i-a-r-o-s-c-u-r-o and never c-h-i-a-r-u-s-c-u-r-o.

    But maybe is US english you use the chiaruscuro variation only (maybe from ancient Italian)?

    If I google search for chiaruscuro in "pages in Italian" I get 2 matches (and googles asks me "maybe you wanted "chiaroscuro"?), while I get 287.000 matches for chiaroscuro.

  2. Skott Klebe says:

    Chiaroscuro is correct in English.  

    http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=chiaroscuro

    Google will find many hits for Mr. Chen’s spelling, but the ‘o’ is correct.  Note the 1998 winning word – ‘chiaroscurist’.

    Mr. Chen’s overall point is quite correct – I remember years ago the winning word was ‘Purim’, whose spelling is quite phonetic (not to mention extremely familiar for a reasonable percentage of the population).

    Dear me, according to the winning word list, that year was 1983. I’m getting old.  

  3. Don says:

    The newspapers all report that "The winning word was ‘dog’," and people reading the newspaper say, "Pshaw,

    >I don’t know why people get all worked up about this spelling bee thing. Even I can spell ‘dog’."

    While I agree with your overall point Raymond, I think your example is a bit extreme.  While hopefully everyone can spell ‘dog’, you will not hear many people claim that they can spell ‘succedaneum’,  ‘prospicience’, ‘pococurante’, ‘autochthonous’, ‘appoggiatura’ which are the last 5 winning words.  

  4. Steve says:

    Ugh. Modern "journalism".

    You could have stopped at "On the bogusness of reporting"

    I’m sure the headline for your example would be "National Honor Student misspells ‘dog’ in spelling bee"

    This is just another example of reporters that can’t grasp basic facts about their story. Look at just about any story about "that thar intarweb thing"

    Was any of the GTA "Hot Coffee" stories anywhere near correct? None that I saw. Are any of the current "MySpace is a bunch of pedophiles" stories correct? Probably not.

    Recently in the local paper there was a story about a new "carbon fiber steel" when it’s actually a new type of high carbon steel.

    Any of the stories about things I’ve personally witnessed were morphed beyond recognition and at least 50% wrong.

    As a result, I don’t believe anything in the papers unless I can personally verify it.

  5. ::Wendy:: says:

    "National honours student beaten by a dog"

    If the words are arranged in some form of graduated difficulty then this was not bogus reporting.  The issue shifts to how do you rank words for their spelling difficulty?

    presumably some complex heuristic based on frequency of occurrence, number of syllibals/letters, pronouncibility and quirky construction.  I wonder how the words are chosen and ordered?

  6. Alun Jones says:

    "National Honours student eaten by a dog"

    Maybe the spelling bee folks should require the attending journalists to drop out if they can’t spell the words.  That might reduce the reports to being only those from better-educated (or merely logophilic) writers.

    Of course, the editors would then go and screw the whole thing up.

  7. Miles Archer says:

    If you haven’t already, check out the documentary "Spellbound". http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0334405/

    I just loved the bit where the Indian kid got "darjeeling".

  8. Lorenzo says:

    How many Italian words in this contest! That’s really strange, because Italian words are usually very simple to spell. English words are a lot more difficult, because there isn’t a clear correspondence between spelling and pronunciation.

  9. Nick says:

    So what happens in the example if Player B misspells "dog" ?  Nobody wins ?

  10. Nick: The Scripps National Spelling Bee web site has the rules.

  11. James Schend says:

    If it’s like Volleyball, then…

    If B mispelled "dog", A would be asked to spell "dog."  If A got it correct, A would then have to spell another bonus word.  If A got the bonus word wrong, that word would go to B and continue until one player gets two words in a row correct.

  12. Vince P says:

    Steve:

    My experience confirms your post.  In cases where I have had personal experience in a story that became "news", the version in the newspaper was some bastardization of the truth.  I am skeptical of everything I read because of that.

  13. Anders Munch says:

    That’s good contest design!

    Rather than let the contest end on a failure (the runner-up misspelling something), the rules make sure the last word spelled is spelled correctly, and by the winner.

  14. Except that the winner gets to hear a possible spelling fail, making it easier for that winner to spell the penultimate word.

    Make them spell, oh, five words in a row, and I’m convinced.

    Honestly, Raymond’s love of the spelling bee is a bit unnerving.

  15. Michael Puff says:

    Is there a reason why almost every American seems to go crazy about spelling bees? In Germany these kinds of competitions are almost unknown.

  16. J says:

    "Is there a reason why almost every American seems to go crazy about spelling bees?"

    What on earth makes you think that almost every American goes crazy about spelling bees?

  17. Paul says:

    I have a degree in music (majoring in musicology) and I had to just look up Appoggiatura – much much more commonly referred to as a leading note or grace note. I asked a few of my friends who also completed their degrees and work as professional musicians in various capacities, and the only one who knew this word was my friend who has a phd in composition.

    To say its a word "any musician can spell in their sleep" means we have a very narrow definition of what "musician" means.

  18. Paul2 says:

    "Is there a reason why almost every American seems to go crazy about spelling bees?"

    I think its because the general population are largely illiterate so its regarded as a real achievement to be able to spell.

  19. I was a spelling bee champion, but the entire concept of spelling bees has always bugged me. They are all about spelling words verbally with no visual reference, but… Spelling is not a verbal skill! It is a written one.

    How often in the real world does it matter whether you can spell a word out loud from memory? Ever? No, you spell a word when you write it.

    So what on earth does a spelling bee have to do with anything?

  20. ::Wendy:: says:

    I second Miles’ recommendation to watch the film documentary "Spellbound"

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0334405/

    For people who live in countries that don’t have spellingbee style traditions for schoolkids this provides a captivating insight into the experience.

  21. My previous complaint aside, there’s an interesting parallel with eBay auctions. Many people do not realize that the final price on an eBay auction is not set by the highest bidder. It is set by the *second highest* bidder.

    The auction closing price is the maximum bid of the second highest bidder, plus the bid increment.

  22. KJK::Hyperion says:

    Lorenzo: that’s what makes our words harder to spell for them. Completely different vowels and consonants (even vowels and consonants we don’t have at all) to be spelled in the same alphabet

    See <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-native_pronunciations_of_English#Italian&gt; for a pretty detailed view of the opposite problem (Italian people speaking in English) that nevertheless highlights the vast phonetical differences between the two languages. I think the most important defect has to be "Tendency to pronounce words as they are spelled" – to us it’s a given, every letter corresponds to one and one sound, or at most a couple (like "s" that has two distinct sounds – compare "mese" and "sera" – or "i" that sometimes is a little like a consonant), and there are no "hidden" vowels, like the omnipresent schwa in English

  23. Xan says:

    KJK::Hyperion, I don’t know if there are that many exception in italian but some words which seem trivial to pronounce correctly, do infact hide traps.

    For example at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_language you can find that "botte" (barrel or hand to hand fight) and "pesca" (fishing or peach) have the two meanings with slightly different pronounciations. The first time I read it I was amazed of the difference (I didn’t know there was one) :)

    Go figure if there is the same difference in "c’è un tipo di colore.. si ma che tipo di colore ? " LOL :D

  24. Stephen Jones says:

    What the French have is even worse. They have dictation competitions.

  25. AndyB says:

    — I was a spelling bee champion, but the entire concept of spelling bees has always bugged me. They are all about spelling words verbally with no visual reference, but… Spelling is not a verbal skill! It is a written one.

    In that case, spelling bees also test a child’s ability at mental visualisation. The best ones are the ones who can visualse the written word in their imagination.

    Possibly this is the reason we don’t have adult spelling bees, we only visualise naked breasts :-)

  26. Threetwosevensixseven says:

    Bogusness.

  27. peterchen says:

    "Is there a reason why almost every American seems to go crazy about spelling bees? In Germany these kinds of competitions are almost unknown."

    Because they are not as uncultured as we like to see them? ;)

    I think for german (compared to english) spelling is only a smaller part of correct writing. But there is more.

    The german education system would be afraid of the competetiveness, and it goes straight against the laissez-faire which is the only direction of change since the ’80.

    If you ask me, I’d take hourly spelling bee news over the shaming debacle of our spelling reform.

  28. Jon Bright says:

    "In Germany these kinds of competitions are almost unknown."

    German spelling is almost entirely phonetic.  In English, there’s nothing at all in the pronunciation of "through" to indicate that the word contains a G. There’s no spelling difference between the "ough" in "bough", that in "cough" and that in "through", but they’re all pronounced differently.  These kinds of inconsistencies are much rarer in German — for the most part, German spelling is entirely consistent.  German spelling bees would therefore be quite staggeringly dull :-)

    There are a few exceptions in German, but not sufficient to make a competition out of it.  There are also some historical exceptions — stuff like the towns of Soest and Oer-Erckenschwich, which have a "Westfälisches Dehnungs-E" (see http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dehnungszeichen ) and aren’t pronounced as you’d expect.

  29. Dan Hoey says:

    The last time chiaroscuro came up I was talking with my wife about a word we had both mislearned from context: coruscating.  When we got over that, I suddenly felt a great need for a word describing flashes of blackness, and <i>coruscuro</i> was born.

    Hard to see, but worth lighting a candle in the darkness for.

  30. KJK::Hyperion says:

    Xan: myself, I never learned the difference between pésca and pèsca, despite the frustrated efforts of an otherwise successful middle school teacher :-) I consider them homophones and disambiguate on the context. All in all, it’s the kind of rules that are worth losing in a language, to make it more "user friendly". Five vowels ought to be enough for everybody :-)

  31. Pat says:

    Sorry ’bout the mangled link.

    http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/B/bogosity.html -> Bogosity

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