Entry in progress—B.P.
[This entry was prepared with the research assistance of Ben Zimmer,]
Wikipedia: Spelling bee
A spelling bee is a competition in which contestants are asked to spell words. The concept is thought to have originated in the United States, and spelling bee events are now held in many countries around the world, along with variants. The first winner of an official spelling bee was Frank Neuhauser, who won the 1st National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. in 1925 at age eleven. The nine finalists were invited to meet Calvin Coolidge at the White House, a tradition followed by presidents for most of the ensuing 86 years of the United States contest.
Historically the word bee has been used to describe a get-together where a specific action is being carried out, like a husking bee, a quilting bee, or an apple bee. Its etymology is unclear but possibly derived from the Old English word bēn, meaning prayer.
(Oxford English Dictionary)
In allusion to the social character of the insect (originally in U.S.): A meeting of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number; e.g. as is done still in some parts, when the farmers unite to get in each other’s harvests in succession; usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting, as apple-bee, husking-bee, quilting-bee, raising-bee, etc. Hence, with extended sense: A gathering or meeting for some object; esp. spelling-bee, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words. lynching bee: see lynching n.
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).
1830 J. Galt Lawrie Todd I. iii. v. 212, I made a bee; that is, I collected as many of the most expert and able-bodied of the settlers to assist at the raising.
1849 ‘D. Knickerbocker’ Hist. N.Y. vii. ii. 390 Now were instituted quilting bees and husking bees and other rural assemblages.
1864 C. M. Yonge Trial II. 281 She is gone out with Cousin Deborah to an apple bee.
The Madras School:
Or, Elements of Tuition:
Comprising the Analysis of an Experiment in Education
By Andrew Bell
London: Printed by T. Bentley
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.
26 January 1831, Jamestown (NY) Journal, pg. 4, col. 4:
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.
19 February 1842, Brother Jonathan, pg. XXXA:
... and if it didn’t make me proud to have her so ready to take my arm home from singing school, and spelling matches, I think it’s a wonder.
The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
By Robert Southey
Edited by Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey
Londoin: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans
Twice during the twelve months of my stay great interest was excited throughout the commonwealth by a grand spelling-match, for which poor Flower deserves some credit, if it was a device of his own to save himself trouble and amuse the boys.
(At a boarding school at Corston—ed.)
April 1850, The Knickerbocker, pg. 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, above—ed.)
16 September 1871, Harper’s Weekly, pg. 876. col. 3:
One of his peculiar gifts was good spelling—a great feature in the days when “spelling bees” were known, and the rivalry between schools was as sharp and as exciting as the present boat-racing between Oxford and Cambridge.
OCLC WorldCat record
The spelling bee outdone by phonotypy
Author: Henry Cape-Williamson
Publisher: Nelson, N.Z. : Printed at the Daily Times Office, 1875.
Edition/Format: Book : English