Spelling C-O-O-L-I-D-G-E

This past week has been Bee Week, as the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee buzzed its final rounds. (Of course, the term “bee” has nothing to do with the insect even if the logo of the National Spelling Bee prominently features one, but rather is an old and somewhat obscure term referring to a communal gathering. Can’t resist the occasional bee pun here, though). And the 2012 winner is… Snigdha Nandipati, from San Diego, who successfully tackled such words as “luteovirescent” or “saccharolytic” that I’m not even sure I have typed correctly. Her winning word was “guetapens.” Congratulations to her and the other finalists! BTW, here’s an interesting blog post on why Indian Americans are so successful at spelling bees.

While spelling bees had been held in many communities since well before 1825, when the term “spelling bee” first appeared in print, 1925 saw the first national spelling bee, which one Frank Neuhauser, 11 years old at the time, won over eight other finalists by correctly spelling “gladiolus.” For his orthographic wizardry, he was awarded $ 500 in gold, a bicycle, and (best of all, from my vantage point) a trip to the White House to meet president Calvin Coolidge, along with the other finalists.

Neuhauser passed away just last year at the age of 97, and he was quoted as graciously saying the contest had gotten a lot more difficult since his time. Snigdha Nandipati will receive a $30,000 cash prize and an engraved loving cup trophy from Scripps, a $2,500 savings bond, a reference library from Merriam-Webster, $2,600 in reference works and a lifetime membership to Britannica Online Premium from Encyclopædia Britannica, $5,000 cash prize from the Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation, and an online course and a Nook eReader from K12 Inc. No doubt she will also get to meet president Obama, as most presidents in the 86-year history of the bee have followed the Coolidge tradition.

I have not been able to find a publicly available picture of Coolidge meeting Neuhauser, but there is a picture of the president meeting with the entire group of finalists at the time of the 2nd National Spelling Bee June 4th, 1926. One of the pretty girls in the picture (I’m guessing 1st or 2nd from right) must be the 1926 winner Pauline Bell, 13 years old at the time, who correctly spelled “cerise” to take home the coveted prize. Note from her obituary that she lived to 98 – I suppose there may be a correlation between spelling prowess and longevity! Excuse me while I get busy with my Webster’s.

President Coolidge with the 1926 National Spelling Bee finalists

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