spelling bee (and spinning bee ~= buzzing?)

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Sun Apr 14 15:45:44 UTC 2013

At 4/14/2013 02:05 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:
>The concept (and probably the practice) anticipated the label by some time:
>"Perhaps [the teaching of orthography] is best done by Pairing the
>Scholars, two of those nearest equal in their Spelling to be put
>together; let these strive for victory each propounding ten words
>each day for the other to be spelt. He that spells truly most of
>the other's Words; he that is Victor most Days in a Month, to
>btain a prize, a pretty neat Book of some Kind useful in their
>future Studies."
>B. Franklin, "Sketch of an English School," 1751 http://goo.gl/Yjon9

The label (applied to a different type of contest) wasn't much later
-- at least in America.  The OED's earliest citation for "bee" (sense 4) is:
    1769   Boston Gaz. 16 Oct.,   Last Thursday about twenty young
Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match;
(or what is called in the Country a Bee).

The OED says "In allusion to the social character of the
insect".  But I wonder if the allusion is rather (or, conveniently,
also) that the sound of spinning was like the buzzing of
bees.  (Perhaps depends on what "Country" means here.  Does it mean
"the general region"?  However, if it means "the rural areas", then
my speculation is less probable-- it would be less likely that
spinning wheels would be gathered in one place.  The purpose of
"spinning bees" in the colonies in 1769 was to demonstrate opposition
to the Navigation Acts of the period -- the colonials didn't need to
import British cloth and clothing, they could make their own.)

The gap between the 1769 "spinning bee" and Ben's 1850 "spelling bee"
seems long.  (Ben puts "spelling match" back to 1808 or 1831.)  But
perhaps the West (American bees) and the East (English spelling
contests) didn't get together early enough.


> > From: "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> > Subject: Re: spelling bee
> > Date: April 13, 2013 7:56:42 AM PDT
> >
> >
> > At 4/12/2013 10:49 PM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
> >> 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.
> >
> > I believe the rule about not scratching one's head was later
> > rescinded.  And spelling bees are no longer like dance endurance
> > contests -- contestants are now allowed to sit while waiting out the
> > performances of their competitors.
> >
> > But a rumored new rule -- in addition to spelling the word,
> > contestants will have to know how to define it.
> >
> > Joel
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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