Scripps National Spelling Bee Through the Years: History, Rules and Fun Facts

Spelling Bee winners then and now

Adapted from Getty Images

Each year after Memorial Day in the United States, hundreds of young students from around the world travel to Washington, D.C., to compete in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. This spelling bee, which has existed in multiple forms since 1925, draws massive prestige and attention. Given its deserved popularity, we thought it would benefit everyone to take a closer look at the National Spelling Bee’s history and some of its more fascinating trivia.

Origins of the Scripps National Spelling Bee

If it seems like the National Spelling Bee has been around forever, that’s because it’s been around since before you were born. 

The origins of the spelling bee event date back nearly 100 years. The first National Spelling Bee took place in Washington, D.C on June 17, 1925. The tournament’s first sponsor was a Louisville, Kentucky newspaper called The Courier-Journal. It was this newspaper that initiated the spelling bee’s mission of promoting literacy and education in America.

The E.W. Scripps Company’s Acquisition and Role

Scripps Spelling Bee logo in backgroundScripps Spelling Bee logo in background

Nearly two decades later, in 1941, the E.W. Scripps Company obtained the rights to the event. It was at this point that it gained the new title of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Since then, Scripps has continued to run the National Spelling Bee as a non-profit event. 

The E.W. Scripps Company was founded in 1878 by Scripps siblings Edward and Ellen. It is a broadcasting company headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio and is the second-largest operator of ABC affiliates in the country. 

Rules for Entering the National Spelling Bee

With the National Spelling Bee being such an important and prestigious event, the need for proper structure is paramount. That’s why the bee uses a thorough and rigid ruleset to ensure that only the appropriate students become participants.

Qualification and Eligibility Criteria

The following are the primary criteria that every child who wishes to compete must meet to be considered eligible to join the spelling bee.

  • Age: The cutoff age for National Spelling Bee participants is 15. More precisely, they cannot be older than 15 as of August 31 in the year preceding the event they wish to enter. 

  • Education: None of the participants can be past the 8th grade. The cutoff point for this is February 1 of the same year they wish to compete. 

  • Previous champions: Anyone who won the National Spelling Bee in a previous year is not allowed to compete in any subsequent tournaments. 

  • Required programs: Anyone who wishes to enter the tournament must be enrolled in the Scripps National Spelling Bee (SNSB) program, which is done through their school. Each contestant must also have a sponsor.

  • Local tournament victory: Every participant must be a previous champion of an SNSB-sanctioned final local spelling bee. The other option is for an official SNSB program to select a spelling champion to compete in the spelling bee.

The Questions Spelling Bee Participants Can Ask

After they receive their spelling bee words, the participants may ask a series of questions about them before they attempt to spell anything. Hearing the answers to these questions can sometimes be crucial for remembering the material the participants have studied and memorized.

  • What is the definition?

  • What is the part of speech?

  • Can you use the word in a sentence?

  • What is the language(s) of origin?

  • Are there any alternate pronunciations?

  • Does it have any root words?

  • Can you repeat the word, please? 

How Much Time Do Participants Have?

Once a participant receives a word, they have two minutes to spell it. The spellers are notified when increments of their time deplete, to ensure they don’t spend too much time on a word. The two minutes include any time they spend asking the questions above. 

Answer from Spelling Bee contestantAnswer from Spelling Bee contestant

Passing or Failing a Round

Spelling the word correctly allows the participant to move on to the next round. If someone fails to provide the correct spelling, they are eliminated from the tournament. But, if every participant misspells their word in the same round, the round is repeated and no one is eliminated from the spelling bee yet.

The Official Scripps National Spelling Bee Dictionary

The Scripps National Spelling Bee, being the world’s premier spelling bee, requires a quality word list to pick its words from. That is why Scripps uses Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. 

For the past 50 years, the spelling bee and Merriam-Webster have been official partners. This is very similar to how Hasbro also partners with Merriam-Webster to produce the official Scrabble dictionary. The full spelling bee word list contains over 472,000 words.

Interesting Facts About Scripps Spelling Bee

Now that we know more information about the National Spelling Bee’s origins and processes, it’s worth studying some of the event’s more random (but still fascinating) trivia. This competition has a truly rich history. That legacy, combined with the spelling bee’s popularity, has led to the development of many surprising and fun facts. 

Scripps and the New York Times Spelling Bee

One thing to also keep in mind about the Scripps National Spelling Bee is that it and the E.W. Scripps Company are not affiliated with the NYTimes Spelling Bee game. The companies do not collaborate with each other to connect the competition with the online game (though such a concept would be interesting to see some day.)

Broadcasted on National TV 

Since 1946, multiple broadcasting stations have aired the National Spelling Bee. Some of these stations include CNN, ESPN, ABC and ION.

Big Cash Prizes 

The prize for first place in the first National Spelling Bee was $500 in gold coins. Since 2019, Scripps National Spelling Bee winners have taken home a $50,000 cash prize.

A Potential International Version 

Scripps announced in May 2012 that they were looking into the idea of an international spelling bee. The competition would involve three-people teams from as many as 60 different countries. Unfortunately, this plan has been on hold since 2015.

Homeschooled Winners 

Despite the fact that homeschooled students make up a smaller percentage of students nationwide, they often account for about 10% of the National Spelling Bee’s participants. Homeschool students have won the event four times. 

Online Popularity 

The National Spelling Bee receives a lot of attention on social media. In fact, during the week of May 25, 2015, people tweeted more about the spelling bee than popular entertainment like HBO’s Game of Thrones and The Bachelorette

Why Is It Called a Bee? 

Though no one knows for certain the origin of “spelling bee” as the competition’s name, the most commonly accepted theory is that the “bee” in “spelling bee” comes from the old English word “bēn'” (or “bene”). Originally, “bēn'” meant “prayer” or “help given by neighbors” and generally implied the idea of people coming together.

Number of Participants 

The Scripps National Spelling Bee saw more than 11 million students compete in 2015 and 2016. During the first event in 1925, only nine children competed.

The “Giggle Factor” 

Dr. Jacques Bailly, the Scripps Spelling Bee’s official pronouncer and a former spelling bee champion himself, once explained that the tournament officials review each spelling bee word for the “giggle factor.” The “giggle factor” is the idea that a word that sounds immature might cause a young contestant to laugh when they hear it.

Gambling on the Bee 

Though it doesn’t draw as many bets as horse races or football games, the National Spelling Bee does see its fair share of wagering. People cannot directly bet on the children participating in the tournament, but they can make “prop bets” on certain variables. They can wager on whether the winner will be a boy or a girl, for example, or if the winner wears glasses. Betting on the over/under for the length of the winning word is another common spelling bee bet.

The Most Common Word 

The French word “connoisseur” is the most frequent word on the Scripps National Spelling Bee word lists. A connoisseur is someone with expert knowledge or training, particularly in the fine arts or in matters of taste.

The First “Spell-Off”

For the 2022 Spelling Bee, finalists Harini Logan (14) and Vikram Raju (12) faced off in a fast-paced contest to determine who would be the champion. This was the first-ever “spell-off” in Scripps National Spelling Bee history. 

The rules were simple: Correctly spell as many words as possible in 90 seconds. At the end of the contest, Harini stood victorious, having spelled 21 out of 26 words correctly, compared to Vikram’s 15 out of 19. 

Resources for Hopeful Spelling Bee Champs

There’s a lot to love about the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The history of the spelling bee is filled with fascinating trivia. Plus, the good it does for students by enriching their minds and opening opportunities is fantastic. If you have a child who would love to explore the spelling bee scene, our complete spelling bee reference guide should be your starting point. The information within will help point your child in the right direction to start spelling for fun and excellence. 

Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.


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