The Grammarphobia Blog

The apian origin of spelling bees

Q: On a recent episode of the TV show Cake Boss, the bakery created a special cake to honor the winner of a spelling bee. It was iced in yellow with black trim, and was topped by a stylized statuette of a honey-producing insect. Does the word “bee” here really have something to do with the insect?

A: Yes, there is a connection. That busy and very sociable insect inspired the American term for the contest—“spelling bee.”

The “bee” part of the term is an “allusion to the social character of the insect,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The term “bee” for a gathering devoted to some special purpose originated in the US in the 18th century, the OED says.

The dictionary defines this sense of “bee” as “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.”

The term is “usually preceded by a word defining the purpose of the meeting, as apple-bee, husking-bee, quilting-bee,
raising-bee
, etc.,” the editors write.

The OED’s earliest citation for this use of “bee” is from a 1769 issue of the Boston Gazette: “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).”

And in his History of New York (1849), Diedrich Knickerbocker (a k a Washington Irving) wrote: “Now were instituted quilting bees and husking bees and other rural assemblages.”

It’s this use of “bee,” the OED says, that gave us the extended sense of “a gathering or meeting for some object; esp.
spelling-bee, a party assembled to compete in the spelling of words.”

The OED’s first published reference for the actual term “spelling bee” is credited to an Englishman, Sir John Lubbock, who was a friend of Darwin and an advocate of spelling reform.

In an 1876 essay on elementary education, Lubbock wrote in the Contemporary Review: “He may be able to parse any sentence, he may be invincible at a spelling-bee; but if you have given him no intellectual tastes, your school has to him been all but useless.” [We’ve expanded the OED’s citation here to provide some context.]

The Scripps National Spelling Bee website says: “Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that.”

The earliest published reference we’ve found for “spelling bee” is from the April 1850 issue of The Knickerbocker, a monthly literary magazine in New York City. A description of such a contest is introduced this way:

“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.”

As for the name of the insect, it’s been part of the language since before the year 1000. In Old English, it was beo, and it has cousins in other Germanic languages.

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