How the National Spelling Bee got so insanely difficult

at 02:36 PM ET, 06/01/2012

Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego, Calif., spells a word during the finals of the National Spelling Bee Thursday, May 31, 2012 in Oxon Hill, Md. (Alex Brandon - Associated Press)
Last night, 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati won the Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word “guetapens,” an obscure French word that describes a snare or a trap. This follows on other spellers taking stabs at words like schwarmerei (to be enthusiastic), ericeticolous (a “heathlike” habitat) and schwannoma (a type of tumor, obviously).

The spelling bee wasn’t always this hard. In 1932, Dorothy Greenwald won the bee by correctly spelling “knack.” The 1993 champion earned his glory by spelling “kamikaze” — perhaps not the easiest word to spell, but certainly no guetapens. Other winning words from the past include therapy, croissant and initials. Yes, initials.

How did the spelling bee get so difficult? There is actually a bit of thinking on what might be a relatively obscure subject.

For one, the competition has got a lot more competitive: This year, the Scripps Bee had 278 competitors. Back in 1981, there were just 120 finalists. With more competitors, harder words become necessary to weed out the true spelling experts.

At the same time, there’s evidence that school curriculums have gotten more rigorous. The number of students in Advanced Placement classes, for example, rose 50 percent between 2004 and 2009. There’s some thought in academic circles that humans, overall, are getting smarter, although that’s an idea that gets hotly debated.

No matter how hard the words though, there has been at least one constant at the spelling bee: It’s a stressful time for competitors. In 2004, one speller famously fainted when asked to spell alopecoid (which, in case you didn’t know, means foxlike). He actually wasn’t the first fainting incident brought on by competitive spelling: A 13-year-old competitor from Brooklyn fainted at the 1949 National Spelling Bee upon elimination.

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