Can You Guess the Meaning of These Tough Spelling Bee Words?


By: Marie Hullett

7 Min Quiz

Image: Barry Rosenthal / Stockbyte / Getty Images

About This Quiz

In 1925, nine newspapers came together to create the United States' first national spelling bee. While the first winner received just $500 in gold pieces, today, the competition is widely-televised and winners enjoy over $40,000 in awards. The number of competitors has also skyrocketed from nine to about 515 in 2018.

Although the Scripps National Spelling Bee experienced a short hiatus during 1943, 1944, and 1945 due to World War II, the competition has gone strong for 91 years in total. While moderately simple words like "therapy," "initials" and "knack" prevailed in the earliest years of the competition, contestants today take on words more similar to "gesellschaft," "condottiere" and "soubresaut." It may be surprising to know that an elementary schooler can tackle those words, but it's true: today, the youngest competitors are only eight years old and the oldest are 15. 

Not only are these adolescents amazing spellers, but they also have to be calm and poised, as the judges will disqualify anyone who utters an "um," "hmm" or "ah." Fortunately, during this quiz, there won't be anyone to send you home on national television. Unfortunately, however, there is not a potential $40,000 reward. Go on, test your vocabulary anyway with the following quiz! 

Do you know the definition of the 1987 winning spelling word "staphylococci"?

In 1987, 13-year-old Stephanie Petit from Pennsylvania won the 60th annual competition by correctly spelling "staphylococci." The word is the plural form of a kind of bacteria that causes staph infections and diseases like pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis.


In 1928, the winning word was "albumen." Do you know what it means?

In 1930, 14-year-old Helen Jensen of Iowa won the sixth-ever Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word "albumen." The last hour of the contest was broadcast on public radio. At this point in time, there were only 24 contestants (compared to 519 in 2018).


The doctor said that the generic version of the drug would serve as a suitable ________ for the brand name one the patient took previously. Which word fits in the blank?

In 2001, 13-year-old Sean Conley from Anoka, Minnesota won the Scripps competition by correctly spelling "succedaneum. Succedaneum means "a substitute," especially for drugs or medicine.


Which of the following words means indigenous or native?

In 2004, 14-year-old David Tidmarsh won the 77th annual competition by correctly spelling "autochthonous." In the year prior, Tidmarsh took 16th place. Autochthonous comes from the Greek prefix "auto," which means "self, and "chthon," which means "of the earth."


Can you correctly select the word that means "a political step or initiative"?

In 2000, 12-year-old George Abraham Thampy from Saint Louis, Missouri won the competition with the word "démarche." After Rebecca Sealfon in 1997, Thampy was the second home-schooled student to ever win the competition. He also won second place in the National Geography Bee earlier that year.


Can you identify the word for a dumpling eaten by Jewish people during Passover?

In 2013, 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali from New York took home the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee prize for correctly spelling "knaidel." The word, which another term for a matzo ball, caused controversy when a number of Yiddish speakers said the winning spelling was incorrect. However, Mahankali's spelling matched Merriam-Webster's.


Do you know the definition of the word feuilleton?

In 2014, both Ansun Sujoe of Texas and Sriram Hathwar of New York won the competition. Sujoe correctly spelled feuilleton and Hathwar correctly spelled stichomythia to assume their winning positions. It was the first time the contest ended in a tie for over five decades.


Scripps Bee contestants have spelled"myriacanthous" wrong three times. Do you know what this challenging word means?

Over the years, contestants have incorrectly spelled this word "myriacanthus," "meriocanthous" and "mirocanthous." In their defense, this word is very seldom used today. Animals like hedgehogs, porcupines and sea urchins might be considered to be myriacanthous.


Can you identify which of the following words means "to cause to become thinner by fasting" or "to cause to become soft or fragmented"?

In 1972, 14-year-old Robin Kral from Texas took home the gold at the 45th Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word "macerate." Today, the verb is mostly used as a synonym for soften or liquefy when referring to food. To macerate as a term for "to grow thin" by fasting is a more outdated usage.


If a patient has a high fever, a doctor might prescribe an __________ drug. Can you fill in the blank?

In 1991, 13-year-old Joanna Lagatta from Wisconsin correctly spelled antipyretic to take home the 64th Scripps Bee win. In the contest, Lagatta and the second-place winner, Maria Mathew, battled for 90 minutes until a winner emerged. Antipyretic means "used to prevent or reduce fever," and usually refers to drugs.


The winning word from the 2002 competition means "to foresee or look foward." Can you guess what it is?

Pratyush Buddiga, 13, from Colorado Springs, Colorado won the 75th Bee with this word. This was the first year that the competition featured a written portion in order to limit it to two days despite increased participants.


Which of the following words means "to create or express through diligent effort"?

In 1980, 14-year-old Jacques Bailey won the 53rd annual competition with this word. Elucubrate primarily refers to the the production of written works. It comes from the Latin word "elucbrare," which means "to compose by lamplight."


Can you correctly define "esquamulose"?

Both winners of the 35th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1962 failed to spell the obscure word esquamulose correctly. After Nettie Crawford and Mike Day became co-champions, a tie wouldn't happen again for over 50 years.


Do you think you can guess the meaning of "euonym"?

In 1997, 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon from Brooklyn, New York won the competition with the word "euonym." Some might say that Usain Bolt is a euonym because he's known as the fastest man in the world (and his last name is bolt). Sealfon was the first home-schooled student to win the contest and is remembered for her ecstatic reaction to realizing she won.


Someone who is indifferent or apathetic might be called what?

In 2003, 13-year-old Sai R. Gunturi from Dallas, Texas won the Scripps contest by correctly spelling the Italian-derived word "pococurante." The classical Latin root "paucus" means "little, few" and "curante" means "to care." It's safe to say that Gunturi wasn't a pococurante about his $12,000 win.


Which of the following four nouns featured in National Spelling Bee competitions means "snare, trap, or ambush"?

In 2012, 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati won the National Spelling Bee with the word "guetapens," which is a French word for "trap." Nandipati, who said she read encyclopedias for fun, planned to use her $30,000 in prize money to save for college.


The word "cynosure" was spelled incorrectly three times in the Scripps competition over the years. Do you know what this tricky word means?

Over the years, "cynosure" was incorrectly spelled by contestants as "sinischure," "synosure," and "synosure." The word "cynosure" is derived in part from the Greek word "kunosoura," which means "dog's tail." Originally, the term denoted the star constellation Ursa Minor, which was used as a guide by navigators.


The adjective "procellous" has been incorrectly spelled in the Scripps Competition three times. Can you guess its significance?

Scripps contestants incorrectly spelled this word "procellus" twice and "procellas" once. Meaning turbulent or stormy, the first known instance of "procellous" appeared in a work by playwright Thomas Goffe around the early 15th century.


In 2010, the winning Spelling Bee word meant "an instrument designed to measure the blood flow in the arteries and veins." Which one of these words is it?

Anamika Veeramani, 14, won the 83rd Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word "stromuhr." At the time, Veeramani said she hoped to become a cardiovascular surgeon when she grows up. If she achieved her goal, she would likely end up using a stromuhr.


Do you know which word means "a peak of rock that projects above a surface of ice or snow"?

In 2015, 14-year-old Gokul Venkatachalam and 13-year-old Vanya Shivashankar came out of the competition as co-winners. This was the second year in a row that the outcome of the Scripps National Spelling Bee was a tie. Gokul correctly spelled "nunatak" and Vanya spelled "scherenschnitte" for the win.


The 69th Scripps National Spelling Bee had a fairly grim winning word; it meant "the act or practice of burying alive." Can you match the word to this definition?

In 1996, 12-year-old Wendy Guey from Palm Beach, Florida won the competition with the word "vivisepulture." The competition was Guey's fourth. The winning word comes from the Latin root word "to live" and "sepultura," which means "burial or funeral."


Can you guess which word means "a ribbed crepe fabric constructed from silk or wool"?

In 2017, 12-year-old Ananya Vinay won the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee with this word. This year, the spellers ranged from ages 6 to 15 and came from all 50 states, U.S. territories, the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea. Competitors from Department of Defense schools in Europe also competed.


Do you know which word means "having a viscous or gelatinous consistency"?

"Mucilaginous" was incorrectly spelled three times by contestants over the years. Misspellings included "muculagenous," "mucelagenous" and "muscillaginous." The competition regularly repeats words from previous years.


The winning word in the first National Spelling Bee of all time was "gladiolus." Do you know its significance?

The very first National Spelling Bee took place in Washington D.C. on June 17, 1925. It was sponsored by the Louisville Courier-Journal; Scripps-Howard didn't begin hosting it until 1941. Frank Neuhauser, 11, won $500 thanks to his correct spelling of the word "gladiolus."


The winning word in the 24th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee competition was "insouciant," which means what?

In 1951, 13-year-old Irving Belz from Tennessee won the competition when he spelled this word. At this time, the first-place award was only $500 (compared to $30,000 today).


Can you guess which of these winning words is another term for green?

In 1961, 12-year-old John Capehart from Tulsa, Oklahoma won the competition with this peculiar word. The word comes from the Latin word for emerald, "smaragdinus." It can also mean "of or pertaining to emeralds."


In 1999, the Scripps National Spelling Bee winning word was "logorrhea." Do you know its significance?

Nupur Lala, 14, from Florida won the 72nd Scripps Bee with the word "logorrhea." A 2003 documentary by Jeffrey Blitz called "Spellbound" covered this Bee in great depth and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.


The word "metonymy" has been spelled in the competition incorrectly four times in the past couple decades. Do you know what it means?

Examples of metonymy include Edward Bulwer Lytton's famous lines "The pen is mightier than the sword" or Shakespeare's "Lend me your ears." Similar to a synecdoche, metonymy replaces something for another associated part. Referring to a man as a "stuffed suit" would also be considered metonymy.


The German-origin word "schwarmerei" has befuddled two finalists, leading to their defeat. Can you define it?

In 2004, 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga lost the competition by misspelling this word; Stuti Mishra then lost because of the word in 2012. The word stems from the German word schwärmen, which means to be enthusiastic or "to swarm."


The winning word in 2018 meant "the Christian fellowship or believers." Can you identify it?

In 2018, 14-year-old Karthik Nemmani from McKinney, Texas was the big winner. Nemmani spent about four hours a day studying for the Bee with his 16-year-old coach. She focused on teaching him the mechanics, patterns and etymologies of the words he was likely to encounter.


Do you know what you call a painter who utilizes light and shade instead of color to lend the appearance of depth in an artwork?

In 1998, 12-year-old Jody Anne Maxwell from Kingston, Jamaica won the 71st Scripps National Spelling Bee with the word "chiaroscurist." She was the second student from outside the U.S. to take home the trophy in the competition's history.


Do you know which word means "a yellowish discoloration of degenerating tissues"?

In 1995, 15-year-old Justin Tyler Carroll from Arkansas won the 68th Bee with the word "xanthosis." Xanthosis was also used as a term for a mid-20th century strawberry-yellowing virus and a disease that causes the brown pigmentation of heart muscles and bones in cattle.


In 2004, 14-year-old Akshay Buddiga fainted during the Scripps competition amid spelling "alopecoid." He then managed to stand up and spell it correctly. Do you know what the word means?

Akshay Buddiga had the microphone in his hand and was poised to spell the word during the 77th competition when suddenly, he fainted. The audience gasped and then gasped again as he quickly stood up again and spelled it correctly. He ended up finishing in second place.


Which of the following winning spelling bee word means "conducive to happiness"?

In 1960, 13-year-old Henry Feldman won the Scripps National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling "eudaemonic." The mid-19th century word stems from the Greek word eudaimonikos, which means happy.


Can you guess what the winning spelling bee word "cymotrichous" means?

In 2011, 14-year-old Sukanya Roy won the National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word cymotrichous, which means "to have wavy hair." Roy's win was the fourth year in a row that an Indian-American won the competition.


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