The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, April 14, 2005

Another peculiar institution: the spelling bee

Catching bits and pieces of Spellbound on the box, I'm driven to puzzle over this (so far as I'm aware, uniquely American [1]) phenomenon.

Part, I suppose, of the immigration and the frontier effects: many residents being either non-native speakers of English or in households headed by non-native speakers; and living away from centres of learning (or, indeed, centres of any kind) in which the meaning of words - after all, the primary function of the word is to mean things - could be elucidated by teachers learned in the subjects of the vocabularies of which those words formed part.

Instead, there were bibles and the catalogues of Messrs Sears, Roebuck & Co and Montgomery Ward, and the chance selection of volumes brought in and left by those passing through. An accumulation of words whose meanings were not necessarily understood by any in the community.

But, to the uninitiated, the use of long words is impressive; and, even if the meaning is not understood, they have an iconic quality, representing the knowledge in the dissemination of which they would be used.

Besides, America is also about competition. For which there is fighting - not conducive to civic improvement. And sport - which requires equipment and coaching and teams to play against.

A spelling bee, on the other hand, requires only a schoolmarm and a dictionary - and violence is optional, and even frowned upon.

The modern competitive version seems to occupy a particular age-group - early adolescence - during which the penalty for nerdishness would be high, I'm thinking. The movie suggests that there's comfort in coming together with others of like kidney.

My favourite, by the way, was Emily Stagg, who lost: cute, in a bluestocking-y way, and able to let go [2]. The fact that her father is (or sounded) English prejudiced me, perhaps.

(Her parents are a Yale Medical School couple:
Suzanne P. Lagarde, M.D., HS ’77, FW ’80, assistant clinical professor of medicine, and David Stagg, Ph.D., research scientist in pharmacology
Not stage mum-like at all either of them, I thought.)

  1. Just like in baseball and (ice-)hockey, Americanincludes Canadianfor this purpose, it seems. The Frozen North's champion takes places in the US National Bee. Oh, Canada!

  2. One might usefully do a compare and constrast with other forms of junior endeavour where (I suspect) one can find far greater fanaticism on the part of child and parents alike. The age cut-off must help with that. Although - Jon Benet Ramsay, beauty pageants: I'm not going there...


One might mention as a companion to the spelling bee that other institution of American backwoods learning, the chautauqua (discussed here on April 18 2004).

The timing of the start of the national spelling bee competition - 1925 - is interesting: this is just at the point at which the Old Immigration - Northern European, Protestant and rural - ceased to rule the roost politically in the US, as signalled by Al Smith's John the Baptist performance in the cities in the 1928 presidential election.

Samuel Lubell, in his The Future of Politics, serendipitously to hand, remarks on the self-sufficiency of Herbert Hoover's early life:
The Iowa homestead on which Hoover was brought up produced all of its own vegetables, its own soup, its own bread. Fuel was cut and hauled from the woods ten miles away, where one could also gather walnuts free. "Sweetness" was obtained from sorghums. Every fall, the cellar was filled with jars and barrels which, as Hoover observes in his memoirs, "was social security in itself".

By 1932, the citizens of the Second Immigration - Southern European [1] and Slav, Catholic and urban - forged ahead.

The spelling bee, I'd hypothesise, is, even in 1925, a piece of nostalgia, like Wild West shows.

  1. Ireland, one might argue, is another Sicily, which missed its way to the Mediterranean on account of having consumed an excess of stout.


The movie had rather a telling set-up for the home scenes featuring Emily Stagg: the girl and her parents were sat round the dining table, but the master was shot over the left shoulder of what was evidently Emily's younger sister, who (in the parts I saw, at least) was neither seen from the front nor heard from.

How 'true' these shots were - whether the younger girl was indeed neglected in the cause of promoting the older - one can't tell [1]. I suspect it was just Oscar-grubbing arty-fartiness on the part of the director.

  1. For all that we're supposed to be a visual culture these days, the relative ease of visual (compared with verbal) manipulation is striking. The way video images can bypass quality control checks in a way that prose finds more difficult.

    The scene from Broadcast News when Holly Hunter calls the interview in which William Hurt tears up in a cutaway as a fake by asking how many cameras were being used was the first that ever got me thinking about such matters. It's the sort of thing that a layman can check; but it goes against all instincts to do so.

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