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How has the spelling bee become cool?

I thought it was such a unique idea, both a throwback and a bit of a transatlantic mash-up: I (a Canadian!) would host a spelling bee (American!) in a pub (British!). It would be like a pub quiz, but contestants would rely on their knowledge of esoteric words, rather than facts; their brain, solely, rather than the hive mind of a team of ‘a maximum of six’. People would sing my praises: “What an interesting idea! A spelling bee in a pub? Cute! Retro! Original!”

Was I… an expert? Hardly. A veteran? Well, I had been spelling since I was about six, and competing in spelling tests since grade school, though we didn’t have spelling bees in Canada (the word bee itself is an Americanism, meaning a gathering, that dates back to 1769). So when, in my twenties, some enterprising gent in Toronto hosted a local bar spelling bee (not a pub spelling bee – you see why mine is such an original idea), I jumped at the chance to take part in what had, until that point, been something I only experienced via television, movies and, of course, the gripping 2002 documentary about the contests, Spellbound. And I wanted people in London to experience what I had experienced there: taking home a small red ribbon designed for children’s athletics competitions.

Yet, that very week, a series of ads for online designer clothing retailer SSENSE dropped, in each of which a precocious kid spells out the name of a fashion house, adorably adhering to the way spelling bee contestants ask for clues regarding the word. (The unseen host: “Your word is ‘Thom Browne’.” The impeccably, fashionably dressed child: “Can you use it in a sentence?” Host again: “I can spot a Thom Browne short suit from a mile away.”)

And within a day or two: another, longer ad, from luxury fashion house Loewe, in which actress and comedian Aubrey Plaza plays a befuddled spelling bee contestant across four separate decades (1971, 1986, 1995, and 2024), misspelling L-O-E-W-E in each.

Suddenly, it felt like spelling bees weren’t just in my brain; they were in the air. They were en vogue. Fashion and culture site Nylon wrote that “fashion loves a spelling bee right now”, and Gen-Z mag Culted asked, “Why is fashion obsessed with spelling?”

But it couldn’t have come from nowhere. The spelling bee didn’t just pop up, fashion-house-hip, in 2024. What had I unknowingly tapped into? When did the spelling bee become cool?

I had some theories. In the 2000s, the popularisation of nerd culture took over: glasses, Belle and Sebastian, and cardigans became cool, Marvel and Funko Pop figurines went mainstream and, for our sins, we received not just The Big Bang Theory but seven (SEVEN!!) seasons of its spin-off prequel Young Sheldon. Which, in turn, gave rise to a soft, wholesome aesthetic characterised by shows like Parks and RecreationNew Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Emma Stone tells Seth Meyers about her spelling bee trophy

Combine this with the internet’s always-on anachronism, in which every decade is constantly in fashion, and it’s hardly surprising that my search for spelling bees in pop culture yielded results spanning Peanuts cartoons (1960s) to The Simpsons (2000s) and Grace and Frankie (2015). It also yielded a video of Emma Stone, newly minted Oscar winner, telling Seth Meyers in 2017 that while her mum holds onto her Oscar, it’s her first-place spelling bee trophy from the fourth grade that sits pride of place in her flat.

Spelling bees weren’t everywhere, suddenly; they were everywhere, period. Emma Stone-approved and all.

I ran my theories about spelling bees, and their rise to popularity, by Shalini Shankar, a sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist at Illinois’s Northwestern University and the author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about Generation Z’s New Path to Success. She agrees about nerd culture but thinks the spelling bee is further ingrained in American culture, “in part because it runs through the elementary schools” – hence, she says, the popularity of digital, phone-based word games like Wordle and the New York Times Spelling Bee game. She thinks nostalgia is keeping the bee relevant: “It has a real nostalgic place for those who participated in it growing up.”

Loewe and SSENSE made their ads worldwide, though – surely, they sought to capitalise on the imagery of spelling bees for citizens of countries without nostalgia for them? What about the UK, for example?

It’s here that Shankar evokes the fascinating history of the spelling bee, which has been traced back as far as the 18th century but became widespread in 19th century America, to differentiate the language of a newly independent United States from British English – ”not only spelling, but pronunciation, the accent and stress of certain syllables over others”, explains Shankar.

The 2002 film ‘Spellbound’ followed a group of young people competing in spelling bees

The 2002 film ‘Spellbound’ followed a group of young people competing in spelling bees (Blitz/Welch/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

“The US obviously felt threatened enough to need to differentiate linguistics, which corresponds with when most of Europe was standardising their national languages and borders.” By the early 20th century, the Merriam Webster Dictionary Corporation was taking part, “legitimising and enshrining in everyday school culture their American dictionary over the Oxford English Dictionary, to ensure they would be the language’s arbiter.” (Which also explains why the spelling bee never became a school tradition in Canada.)

Noah Webster was, per today’s Merriam-Webster website, “struck by the inconsistencies of English spelling and the obstacles it presented to learners (young and old alike) and resented that American classrooms were filled only with British textbooks.” Not only did he change words like humour and colour to humor and color, “he changed the –ce in words like defenceoffence, and pretence to –se; abandoned the second, silent “l” in verbs such as travel and cancel when forming the past tense; and dropped the “k” from words such as publick and musick.”

The fact that it’s run through schools gives it an egalitarian sheen, but that’s not actually the case

Shalini Shankar, sociocultural and linguistic anthropologist

It was a nationalistic endeavour, but Shankar says, “people miss that part, critically, because it’s usually performed by kids.” Now, that performance – turned nostalgic by American schools, reflected by American pop culture – has become part of the cultural fabric worldwide.

I wonder if fascination with spelling bees might be built into the world’s fascination with symbols of Americana like Mickey Mouse, I Love NY T-shirts, or Marilyn Monroe. Given the spelling bee’s wholesome and safe image, its popularity would make particular sense at a time when America’s reality is scarier than ever. Spelling bees, after all, are a rare instance of true meritocracy: there is no debate about right and wrong; there is only correct and incorrect, each by a standard dictionary’s arbitration. Surely that’s a balm, at a time when factuality – via info wars and fake news – is more imperilled than ever?

The author assigning words at his spelling bee at the Three Colts Tavern, London

The author assigning words at his spelling bee at the Three Colts Tavern, London (Jo Barrow)

Unfortunately, not in reality. Class, Shankar says, plays a huge factor in competitive spelling bees, as was suggested in Spellbound, which featured children from widely different backgrounds. “The fact that it’s run through schools gives it an egalitarian sheen, but that’s not actually the case. If you really do want to compete on a national level, you really have to have spent a lot of time and energy and resources training for this. It’s not just the kid who worked the hardest; that kid was probably supported in a way that kids who might also have succeeded at it were not.”

I wanted people in London to experience what I had experienced: taking home a small red ribbon designed for children’s athletics competitions.

But the symbol – of nostalgia, innocence, meritocracy, a time before our digital era – does persist, especially in places like the UK where, Shankar says, “it’s obviously more of a novelty.” Which is why it works perfect as a symbol for luxury brands like Loewe: the “slyly elevated” nature of the spelling bee and the fact that, in Shankar’s words, “it’s a prestige activity, for sure”, can be communicated implicitly but masked explicitly. “When you use kids, it’s just cute.”

Behind the symbology of spelling bees, and beneath the weight of nationalism, class and culture, remains the actual spelling bee: competitive, challenging, fun. The kind that makes it fun to gather with friends, drink a pint, and cheer each other on as we wrestle with words like parliamentacquiesce, or triskaidekaphobia – where I was mentally, planning my SPELLING BEE(R) event (insert plaudits for the great pun here), before I was rudely interrupted by the hubbub of LOEWE and SSENSE.

I ask Shankar why this bee – the pure bee – survives, and she tells me she has wondered the same. “So much of what is cool right now is AI and tech,” she says. “The spelling bee is nerdy, but it’s also so low-tech that I always wonder, are people going to get bored with it? It’s anachronistic to the digital culture that everyone has accepted right now.”

Then, she found herself at a competition, where she spoke to a father of a participant. “I said, ‘What do you think about, you know – that with the advent of spellcheck and AI, spelling bees should be obsolete?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Just because we have helicopters, does that mean people don’t want to climb Everest?’”

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