During this year's national spell-off, contestants were forced to puzzle out words of Spanish, Greek, Latin American, homosexual, even French origin. Now some native-born bee watchers say they've had enough. If they get their way, spelling bees from elementary schools to the nation's capital will soon be conducted in English only.
75% of Americans say foreign words are too difficult to spell
By Deanna Swift,
WASHINGTON, DC—Unlike millions of Americans, Lorraine Dittie didn't wait to watch the coronation of Katharine Close, this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. Dittie, a Dover, PA, mother of two, had turned off her TV in disgust in the fourth round of the annual spell-off after contestant David Keyes of Watkins Glenn, NY, successfully sounded out sudadero, a Spanish word meaning a blanket that soaks up the sweat beneath the saddle of a horse.
For Dittie, the surfeit (sûr'fit; a word of French origin meaning excessive amount) of foreign words in this year's bee was just the latest sign that English—the language in which she majored in college—is increasingly under siege. "I listened to the words they were giving to these kids and I was just shocked. There were Greek words, Latin American words. I even heard some Indian words. But what happened to all of the English words?" asks Dittie.
English bees please
A growing number of native-born and legal spelling bee fans are asking the same question. Studies indicate that as the number of illegal immigrants in this country has soared in recent years, so too has the percentage of foreign words in spelling bees. Now a new organization, ProEnglishFirst, is lobbying Congress to make English the official language of all bees, from local contests at elementary schools to the biggest bee of all. "Our position is that if you're going to spell in this country you ought to be spelling words that are native to our language," says Martin DuCasse, a spokesperson for the Arlington, VA, nonprofit.
Volunteers from ProEnglishFirst monitored the official word list from this year's competition, notes DuCasse, and were disturbed by what they found. "There were way too many French words," he says, listing causerie, meaning light chit chat for social occasions and accouchement, the process of giving birth to a child, as two offending terms. "There were a couple of these that were so bad that we encouraged our members to call the FCC to complain," says DuCasse.
Linguistic law of the land
According to recent polls, Americans overwhelmingly agree that English should be the official language of the United States, including more than two-thirds of Democrats and four-fifths of first- and second-generation Americans. Support for English-only spelling bees is believed to be even higher.
The US Senate recently passed a measure that would make English the national tongue, and while the proposal contains no language specific to spelling bees, House negotiators are expected to try to force the issue in conference later this month. Once the new law goes into effect, National Spelling Bee organizers would be forced to eliminate all foreign words from their vocabulary lists in time for the 2007 competition.
Offensive words from Mexico and France weren't the only terms to raise eyebrows and ire at this year's bee. Observers also noted an increasing number of homosexual words being assigned to the school-aged spellers. One contestant, homeschooler Matthew Oliphant, successfully spelled one such word, mansuetude, a gay term meaning a meek or gentle attitude, in the fourth round of the competition. But when yet another word with homosexual origins came his way in round 6, it was Matthew's turn to bow out gracefully. The word: spheterize, meaning to appropriate or make something one's own.
"Can you use it in a sentence?" asked Matthew.
"Young Tom was afraid to take off his clothes in the locker room for fear of being spheterized," came the response.
Matthew looked puzzled—he later admitted that in preparing for the event he had neglected to memorize a gay dictionary—then made a brave attempt.
The dreaded bell sounded and yet another young contestant had been sent packing.
Do you think that foreign and homosexual words should be banned from spelling bees? Talk back to Deanna Swift at email@example.com.