Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee: Two Million Words and Counting

The 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee kicks off today, an annual celebration of America's passion for competitive spelling. We here at the Visual Thesaurus know just how deep that passion runs: our own Spelling Bee, launched less than a year ago, has already attracted tens of thousands players who have tried their hand at spelling a grand total of more than 2,000,000 words. And all of the data that we've collected thus far is providing new insights into the mysteries of English spelling, pinpointing the words that are the most devilishly challenging — even for the very best spellers.

If you haven't given the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee a try yet, head on over to the Bee page and see what all the fun is about. In each round of the Bee, you hear the recording of the word and see its definition (with words suitably omitted that might give away the correct spelling). The more words you get right, the higher your score will go, on a scale from 200 to 800. The game adapts to your skill level, so if you continue to answer correctly, you'll get harder and harder words to spell. And we're constantly re-scoring words based on what we know about their spelling difficulty, so we can ensure you're getting words that are challenging for your skill level. (Check out the Frequently Asked Questions page for more information about the VT Bee.)

If you're an 800-level speller, it won't be long before you're being quizzed on words that might stump even the precocious finalists at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The toughest words are hardly run-of-the-mill: very often they're foreignisms that follow the spelling rules for languages other than English, like pickelhaube (German), hypozeuxis (Greek), abatis (French), and appoggiatura (Italian). Some are even more exotic, like that fine example of crosswordese, unau, a kind of sloth with a name that comes to us from Portuguese, originally from the Tupi language (spoken in Brazil and Paraguay), where the word is unĂ¡, meaning "lazy."

It's no wonder, then, that the kids who come out on top at the National Spelling Bee are steeped in the linguistic rules of foreign languages. The 293 spellers competing this year are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch: according to Scripps, English is not the first language of 33 of the spellers, and 117 spellers speak languages other than English. There's even one speller, Kun Jacky Qiao, representing a sponsor in China, a first in the history of the Bee. All that foreign-language exposure pays off: as in the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee, the trickiest words in the Scripps Bee often have obscure foreign origins. Last year, second-place finisher Sidharth Chand misspelled prosopopoeia, a personifying figure of speech from Greek. In 2006, the runner-up ran afoul on a German word, Weltschmerz ("sadness on thinking about the evils of the world").

Top spellers also can be led astray by words that sound like they should follow a more familiar spelling pattern but have an orthographic quirk to them. So, for instance, isarithm sounds like it should end in -rhythm, while hidrosis sounds like it should start with hydro-. It's no surprise that both of those terms show up among the very hardest words in the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. As researchers at Collins Dictionaries found last year, words that are most often misspelled are those where we follow a pattern set down by other words, but the pattern-matching ends up being mistaken. So we guess that liquefy is spelled as liquify based on liquid, or that sacrilegious is spelled as sacreligious based on religious. The most adept spellers know when to trust analogical reasoning and when to look for exceptions to the common patterns of spelling.

As I did last year, I'll be watching the Scripps Bee closely, and I hope to provide some instablogging of the nationally televised finals on Thursday. So follow this space for more spelling goodness, and get into the spirit by trying to crack 800 on the VT Bee. But be advised: it's super-addictive — as if two million words spelled wasn't warning enough!


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday May 26th 2009, 5:15 AM
Comment by: Randy Alexander (Jilin City China)
Hey! I thought English only had one million words! At least that's what Mr. Payack has been trying to tell us. But hopefully nobody trusts him anymore.

But seriously, when you say two million words, are you talking about types, or tokens?
Tuesday May 26th 2009, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Randy: That would be tokens, not types.

(For more on the type-token distinction, see this article.)

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