20 Winning Words From Past National Spelling Bees

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Thursday, June 1, 2017, the world's best young spellers will assemble together under one roof to determine which one (or two) will be crowned champion of the 90th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. While we breathlessly await that moment, let's take a look back at some of the most interesting winning words from years past.

1. GLADIOLUS // 1925

The word (a type of flower) is notable not due to its complexity, but because it was the first-ever winning word.

2. ALBUMEN // 1928

The white part of an egg.

3. PROMISCUOUS // 1937

We just like the idea of an eight-year-old asking the judge to use "promiscuous" in a sentence.

4. CRUSTACEOLOGY // 1955

The study of crustaceans, of course. Doesn’t it just roll off the tongue?

5. SYLLEPSIS // 1958

This is a complicated definition: “A figure of speech in which one word simultaneously modifies two or more other words such that the modification must be understood differently with respect to each modified word.” Say what? How about an example from Dorothy Parker: “It’s a small apartment. I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.” There’s also the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman”: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

6. SMARAGDINE // 1961

Of or pertaining to emeralds, or having the color of emeralds. “What beautiful smaragdine eyes you have.”

7. ESQUAMULOSE // 1962

Not covered in scales or scale-like objects; smooth-skinned. Can we bring this one back? “Hey, Jessie. You’re looking especially esquamulose today.”

8. MACULATURE // 1979

Paper waste and printed materials not intended for reading, a.k.a. junk mail. You might consider those five L.L. Bean catalogs you never signed up for maculature.

9. ELUCUBRATE // 1980

To produce by long and intensive effort, especially in reference to literary work.

10. ODONTALGIA // 1986

The next time you have a sore tooth, impress your dentist by telling him you’re suffering from odontalgia. It’s just a fancy word for toothache.

11. ANTEDILUVIAN // 1994

Ancient, antiquated or supremely dated. Have a friend who’s hitting a milestone birthday soon? Up the ante by referring to them as “antediluvian” instead of the totally overdone “over the hill.”

12. VIVISEPULTURE // 1996

The act of burying someone alive. Famous people terrified of being buried alive—also known as taphephobia, another great spelling word—included Hans Christian Andersen, George Washington, and Frederic Chopin.

13. EUONYM // 1997

A name well suited to a person, place or thing.

14. CHIAROSCURIST // 1998

Chiaroscuro is a style of monochromatic shading used in art.

15. SUCCEDANEUM // 2001

A substitute or replacement for something else, especially in reference to medicine.

16. PROSPICIENCE // 2002

Foresight.

17. POCOCURANTE // 2003

Apathetic or indifferent. Even though you’re not studying for the SATs anymore, maybe you should be a little less pococurante about expanding your vocabulary.

18. URSPRACHE // 2006

A hypothetically reconstructed parent language; Proto-Germanic would be one.

19. GUETAPENS // 2012

This word, which is defined as an ambush or trap, fortunately didn't ensnare 14-year-old Snigdha Nandipati, who went on to become that year's champion.

20. KNAIDEL // 2013

A small controversy followed the 2013 Spelling Bee, which 13-year-old Arvind V. Mahankali won by spelling knaidel, which is a type of dumpling that's often eaten during Passover, exactly as we just spelled it. But Yiddish experts said the Bee was wrong; traditionally, the word is spelled as kneydl.

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BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
vyasphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]