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First, I have to clarify that spelling bees started out as a good idea. Why not introduce a little bit of competition to help make learning a bit more exciting, right? But our culture is so obsessed with competition in each and every thing we do that the concept has gone way beyond its original intent.

Spelling bees are no longer about spelling; they are an arms race. They are about which kid's parents spent the most money on personal tutors and forced the kid to cram as many words into their consciousness as possible.

Here, from the official website at, is a list of the final "winning" words from each national championship of this century so far:

Do you see what I mean? I've never needed to spell (or even say) any of these words in my life! "Knaidel" is the only one I even recognize, and even that's probably just because I'm Jewish. I own a 1,500-page dictionary and only four of these words are found in it. This isn't about learning how to spell, it's a trivia contest!

Consider the outright foreignness of words such as "Ursprache" (German), "scherenschnitte" (German again), "nunatak" (Inuit), or "guetapens" (French). Are these even considered to legitimately be English words? I can only imagine that the few Anglophones who will ever need to use these terms will end up doing so only if they go into very specialized careers. It doesn't seem fair that a spelling competition would rely so heavily on words from other languages. Imagine if MLB teams only played baseball in the regular season, then switched to petanque for the playoffs. Then, at the World Series, the two pennant winners play petanque, best four out of seven games, and the winning team is given the title as the country's best baseball players. It makes no sense.

This story is going to sound unreal, but aahnest-t'-Gyaahd it happened. One year I did see part of the national spelling championship on television. Don't ask me for a year, because I don't know; it was probably in the 1990's. One kid goes up to the microphone and the word he's given is: the letter H. Everyone was confused. "You can spell the names of letters??" they must have been thinking. The kids all looked dumbfounded. Nothing could have prepared them for such an unexpected left turn.

Well, I knew the answer was "A-I-T-C-H", just because that's the sort of thing I've always found interesting to learn about. No school in the country is going to teach you that, especially because nobody knows it. When we need to convey the idea of the letter H, we always just write an H, sometimes with quote marks around it. Nobody has ever objected to that.

Think about those poor kids, though. They're being pushed by their parents to spend their time learning all of those facts that will never help them in their everyday lives. Even if you win, what does it get you, aside from the prize? There's no endorsement deals. No admiration from your peers. Instead, you just go through life as a spelling bee champion. Whenever you make a spelling error or a typo, as we all do, that one guy we all know (the one who hasn't done a thing with his life but still thinks he's the most important person alive, so he tries to turn everything into a competition as a result) is going to leap all over it with, "Oh, I guess you're not a perfect speller after all, are you?"

To summarize: spelling bees are a joke and solely the territory of wealthy parents. They're not about learning, they're about rote memorization. They're not about knowledge, they're about trivia. If you really want to help your kids by forcing them to learn how to spell foreign words, have them start with the ones in Mandarin.