Thursday, February 3, 2011

To Bee or Not Bee? That is the Spelling Question

by Stephen J. Gertz

Verne (H.G.) [The] Spelling [rebus:] Bee.
A Humourous and Original Comic Song ...
Sung Nightly with the Greatest Success.
Music at Hopwood and Crew’s. 1876.

“On Thursday evening last, your correspondent attended the much talked of ‘Spelling Bee’ held in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, and enjoyed it exceedingly” (Bucks County Gazette, April 1, 1875).

“The spelling fever is playing bob with our pet phrases; ‘too diaphanously attenuated’ is now the substitute for ‘too thin’” (Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, March, 1875).

"The spelling-bee mania has spread over all England, and attacked London with especial virulence" (Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June, 1876).

1876 was a banner year for spelling bees. In addition to The Spelling Bee, a c. 1876 collection of popular English Music Hall songs, COPAC records a flood of spelling bee-related titles in that year; the craze spelled enjoyable, wildly popular recreation on both English-speaking sides of the Atlantic. But the English really went mad for them, bees in their bonnets abuzz.

"Informal spelling contests among neighbours or in schools had long been held for recreation or instruction or as tests. They were called spelling matches, a name which appears in the USA in the 1840s. The term spelling bee wasn’t applied to them at the time, since bee was then firmly attached to the idea of communal manual work (yet another, spelldown, modeled on hoe-down, only arrived at the end of the century). The basis for most of these competitions was the famous Blue-Back Speller of Noah Webster, The Elementary Spelling Book, a work which sold more than 80 million copies in the 100 years after its publication in 1783" (Michael Quinion).

In May of 1875, the Staffordshire Sentinel, a newspaper in Stoke-on-Trent, reported that “On Monday evening an entertainment of novel, amusing, and instructive character, was given in the Temperance Hall, Dresden — a spelling match, or what the Americans call a spelling bee.”

As the fad caught momentum spelling bees actually became fashionable. “The ladies will be behind the age if they don’t have a spelling bee,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported in March, 1875.

Alas, all fevers eventually break, and fashion is fleeting.

"The craze didn’t last long: as early as May 1875 the Daily Gazette And Bulletin of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, remarked that 'The spelling fever has almost entirely subsided, and the buzz of the bee is scarcely heard any more.' This was premature, at least for other parts of the USA, but the evidence suggests it was not a long-lived fashion; spelling bees went back to being popular in a low-key way, as they had been before the craze erupted" (Quinion).

Bee that as it may, they have persisted, if for no other reason than they are, perhaps, the geekiest of all geek-fests yet enjoyed by all. It's always a humbling thrill to marvel at  a 10-year old who can spell antidisestablishmentarianism when many adults can't spell relief without TUMS.

In 2002, Spellbound, a documentary about guess what, was released to wide critical acclaim. Following the trials of nine contestants in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, it won an Emmy award and, in 2008, was voted one the Top Five Documentaries of All Time by the International Documentary Association.

Given current popular culture, I suspect the audience for spelling bees and participants would dramatically increase if "spelling bee" was tossed over the side in favor of "spelling smackdown." I see the WWF's Vince McMahon in the ring announcing the contestants, who have to pin their opponents for a three-count before victory is declared. Cardinal Spellman, 'natch, on deck to provide last rites should the action get too violent and 12-year old Sammy "The Animal" O'Shaunnessy require a visa to Valhalla after dropping that pesky "h" in floccinaucinihilipilification (the act or habit of describing or regarding something as worthless, the word floccinaucinihilipilification, for instance).

Of course, anyone writing about spelling bees would be remiss if not acknowledging the Great Aunt of All Bees:

Now, Barney, if you want a piece of shoo-fly pie
you'll have to spell floccinaucinihilipilification first.

( ! )

Mention must be made of some other ditties within The Spelling Bee, which present what appears to be an all too familiar and tragic narrative:

Fair English Girls; A Little Lock of Hair; Naughty Young Man; Georgie, Georgie, Do; Another Good Man Gone Wrong; I've Gone Wrong for the Sake of Sarah. At this point, things take a really sad turn, the following song providing a denouement of defeat, resignation, and questionable family relations:

Tommy Make Room for Your Uncle.

I omit The Galvanic Battery. For the sake of Sarah, too shocking. I done her wrong already. That's "wrong" with a silent "w."

Verne (H.G.) [The] Spelling [rebus:] Bee. A Humourous and Original Comic Song ... Sung Nightly with the Greatest Success. Music at Hopwood and Crew’s. [Followed by the titles of nearly 100 songs].  J.T. Wood & Co., [c. 1876],  Folio, [8] pp. Title with very large woodcut of a magnified bee (forming the rebus element of the title), printed on very thin paper, the songs printed in microscopic type in seven columns.

Image courtesy of Blackwell Rare Books, with our thanks. They are currently offering this scarce title.

Michael Quinion's World Wide Words has an excellent article about spelling bees here.

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