spelling bee (1850), spelling match (1808, 1831)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Sat Apr 13 02:49:37 UTC 2013

"Spelling bee" is in OED from 1875, antedated to 1871 by Barry Popik
some years ago:


Here it is from 1850:

1850 _The Knickerbocker_ Apr. 360 Those who have attended a
'spelling-bee' -- and what reader who ever went to a district-school
in the country but _has_ attended them? -- will call to mind a
familiar and pleasant scene while perusing the annexed extract.

This is from a review of _The Life and Correspondence of Robert
Southey_ (1849). In the relevant passage, Southey refers to a "grand
spelling-match" at his school in Corston:


"Spelling match" is in OED2 from 1845, antedated by Barry to 1842:


Here it is from 1808:

1808 Andrew Bell _The Madras School_ 266 Some of the boys, who are
brothers, after they have left school in an evening, have spelling
matches at home; and the mother of one boy said her son was _spelling
in his sleep_: the school has been long established, but these effects
are _quite new_.

That doesn't suggest the American spelling-bee model, but this cite
from 1831 does:

1831 _Jamestown (N.Y.) Journal_ 26 Jan. 4/4 (GenealogyBank) A big
spelling match is announced in Covington, Ohio, at the High School,
when the lad that stands longest on the floor and spells the biggest
words without scratching his head is to receive a fine present.


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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