Q&A: Why is it called a spelling bee?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having a spelling bee…

Q: Hello. H-E-L-L-O. Hello.

A: What are you doing?

Q: Practising for my upcoming ‘spelling bee’…

A: Um, okay.


A: Well, anyway, if you’re busy, we won’t distur–

Q: Oh, wait! I DO have a question for you!

A: You do? Great.

Q: WHY are they called spelling BEES? Why a bee?

A: That’s a pretty good question.

Q: Question. Q-U-E-S-T-I-O-N. Question.

A: Of course, they’re not the only kinds of bees out there.

Q: Do you mean “bumblebees”? The Airbus A380s of the insect world…

A: No, we meant there are other things like “working bees”, “gardening bees”, and so on.

Q: So there is. Well, can you explain them all then please? That would BEE great. B-E-E. Bee. Haha.

A: Alright, let’s take a look at the origins of “bee”.

Q: Oh yes, can we? Can we please?

A: Are you being sarcastic?

Q: I would never BEE such a thing!

A: Uh huh. Anyway, the word belonged solely to the insect for many centuries until the 1530s – when “bee” also came to mean “busy worker”. No prizes for guessing where that came from.

Q: Can we have just a small prize?

A: No prizes.

Q: Ugh, even the spelling bee is doing prizes!

A: No.

Q: Sheesh. Well, I’m assuming it’s because bees work busily all day collecting honey or making sweet love to flowers or whatever it is they actually do.

A: Yes, yes, all that. So that set the stage for busy workers to come together for the good of the community. This style of bee was first recorded in America in 1769 – a “spinning bee” – taking on both the labour and social activity similar to how bees behave. 

Q: Oh BEE-have! Groovy!

A: Is that an outdated Austin Powers reference?

Q: Um, maybe.

A: Anyway, other types of “bee” followed in the early 1800s, including “husking bees”, “logging bees” and “raising bees” – that last one relating to raising building frames during construction. Many hands needed!

Q: Oh, like when the Amish built the barn in the 1985 film Witness starring Harrison Ford?

A: That’s an even more outdated film reference, but yes. And bees didn’t just stop there. In America, they even have records of “hanging bees” – for town lynchings.

Q: Lynching? Hmmm. Tricky to spell. Can you use it in a sentence?

A: A lynching usually didn’t involve a sentence.

Q: Oh, I see what you did there. 

A: Thanks.

Q: So what other types of bee were there?

A: There was – and continues to be – no limit to the type of bee you can hold. A “sewing bee” or “quilting bee”; “baking bee”; “painting bee”. Simply put, a “bee” is a community social event with a common goal – one that typically encourages a hive of activity.

Q: Hive. Nice one. So, this is all fine and good…

A: But?

Q: But “Spelling Bee” feels like the odd one out. It’s a competition rather than building a barn, weeding a garden or a merry hanging. Do you see the difference?

A: The first spelling “matches” date back to 1808 – but they weren’t known as “bees” until around 1870. However, these were still highly popular events in the 1800s – a popular form of entertainment and social activity for a town.

Q: Much like a lynching?

A: Sadly, yes. Even more similar when that kid who knows the correct spelling leaves the audience hanging, right?

Q: I see what you did there.

A: Now, allow us to dispense with Theory B.

Q: Theory Bee?

A: That’s right – a second theory of where the term “bee” comes from. Recent etymologists have—

Q: Etymologists? They study insects like bees, yes?

A: No – that’s entomologists! Etymologists study the origin of words.

Q: Ah yes, sorry. Do continue.

A: Well, the second theory suggests that “bee” actually derives from the Middle English word “bene” – which meant “prayer” or “favour”. In England, voluntary help given by neighbours was known as a “bene” (pronounced “been”) – and this became shortened to “bee” through time and dialect differences.

Q: I think I prefer the other theory.

A: That’s okay. Just know that most modern dictionaries these days prefer the “bene” theory. Either way, the correct origin of “bee” is unlikely to bother most spelling connoisseurs. 

Q: C-O-N-A-S-E-W-E-R-S. Nailed it!


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