Words From the 2021 National Spelling Bee

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The words asked in the national spelling bee weren’t always so difficult.

Ananya Gautam, 12, of Potomac, Md., competing in the second round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May 2019.
Credit...Susan Walsh/Associated Press

July 8, 2021, 10:00 a.m. ET

The words weren’t always this hard.

When students first battled the dictionary in a National Spelling Bee in 1925, the winning speller knew the winning word because it was a plant in his family’s Kentucky garden.

Two years ago, the last time that spellers competed to win the Scripps national bee, one winner was asked about an adjective related to a hypothetical force proposed by a Prussian scientist in the 19th century.

Already this year, nearly 200 competitors have been eliminated from the 2021 bee. Here’s a sampling of the words that have given some of those spellers trouble, and of winning words from the decades when the spelling bee was less of a labyrinth of loan words and schwas.

Definitions are drawn from Merriam-Webster, the dictionary partner of the Scripps spelling bee, and sentences come from the New York Times archive, where possible. (Example sentences that do not end with a publication date are inventions.)

  • vamoose: to depart quickly. “Every town, every hamlet, and every man is for the Union, and if a single ranche in the gallant Grizzly Bear State harbors a traitor, the rascal had better vamoose at once.” — May 23, 1861

  • arenicolous: living, burrowing or growing in sand. “Incidentally, marine arenicolous annelids are commonly known to fishermen as sandworms.” — Dec. 3, 1928

  • gelometer: an instrument for measuring jelly strength. “Studying memorabilia like an original gelometer, a contraption that tested Jell-O texture, some people spoke in spiritual terms.” — July 27, 1997

  • garrulity: the quality of being given to prosy, rambling or tedious loquacity; pointlessly or annoyingly talkative. “His exhausted servants are forced to listen for hours to revival services conducted by him on a wheezy organ and he is subject to alternate fits of garrulity and taciturnity.” — April 16, 1923

  • anticaries: tending to inhibit the formation of caries; tending to prevent tooth decay. “On the other hand, cheese seems to have an anticaries action by preventing bacteria from using sugar to produce decay-enhancing acid on the tooth surfaces.” — Aug. 21, 1985

  • pettifoggery: methods that are petty, underhanded or disreputable; one given to quibbling over trifles. “James Randi, a MacArthur award-winning magician who turned his formidable savvy to investigating claims of spoon bending, mind reading, fortunetelling, ghost whispering, water dowsing, faith healing, U.F.O. spotting and sundry varieties of bamboozlement, bunco, chicanery, flimflam, flummery, humbuggery, mountebankery, pettifoggery and out-and-out quacksalvery, as he quite often saw fit to call them, died on Tuesday at his home in Plantation, Fla.” — Oct. 21, 2020

  • fanion: a small flag used originally by horse brigades and now by soldiers and surveyors to mark positions. “A fanion, fluttering in the wind, marked the spot on the hillside where the children were convinced gnomes lived below.”

  • clinquant: glittering with gold or tinsel. “The guests at the gala, clinquant in finery and jewels for the ‘Shining Knight’ theme, were mostly unhappy to learn that the dinner options were lamprey pie, cabbage chowder or gruel.”

  • thooid: resembling a wolf; used of a wolf, dog or jackal as distinguished from the foxes or alopecoid (like a fox) members of the genus Canis. “The puppy, despite her best efforts at projecting thooid authority, failed to intimidate the school bus as it drove by her window.”

  • 1925 gladiolus: any of a genus of perennial plants of the iris family with erect sword-shaped leaves and spikes of brilliantly colored irregular flowers. “Ten years of selecting and cross-fertilizing, and a million seedlings to develop the superb California gladiolus from a weak-stemmed and scrawny flower, and the whole process delayed by a stray gopher.” — Aug. 30, 1925

  • 1930 fracas: a noisy quarrel. “At their headquarters, after the fracas, Communists said they had three films of snapshots taken on the ground and from upper floors of the building which will show that the alleged brutality was manifested yesterday.” — May 19, 1929

  • 1935 intelligible: capable of being understood. “As a general thing they can give no intelligible explanation of their conduct, or tell what they are in arms against the Government for.” — Jan. 28, 1863

  • 1940 therapy: medical treatment of impairment, injury, disease or disorder. “Hypnotic Therapy Defended: Hypnosis, which has fallen into disfavor as a therapeutic technique, was defended as an experimental procedure by Dr. Cobb.” — Dec. 29, 1938

  • 1946 semaphore: an apparatus for visual signaling; a system of visual signaling by two flags. “A few days ago some American and British officers stepped ashore on Ponza to inspect its obsolete submarine cable and its dust-covered semaphore station.” — Jan. 16, 1944

  • 1951 insouciant: lighthearted unconcern. “Insouciant Wizard Sits in Death Chair: Crowd at Radio Fair Gasps as He Defies Current and an Iron Bar ‘Melts in His Mouth.’” — Sept. 25, 1927

  • 1955 crustaceology: carcinology; a branch of zoology concerned with the crustacea. “The marine biologist, for all her study of crustaceology, was awed at seeing hundreds of spider crabs, many with legs 10 feet long, clambering toward the aquarium doors.”

  • 1964 sycophant: a servile, self-seeking flatterer. “He has no fondness for political sycophants and yes‐men.” — Sept. 18, 1964

  • 1970 croissant: a flaky, rich crescent-shaped roll. “The fast food croissant, brioche and puff pastries are by and large soggy, tasteless impostors of revered French pastries, yet the apparent popularity here attests to the seemingly insatiable world appetite for fast food.” — Aug. 27, 1980

  • 1980 elucubrate: to work out or express by studious effort. “Despite decades as a fan, he could not, to his own or anyone else’s satisfaction, elucubrate his reasons for such devotion to Philadelphia teams.”

  • 1995 xanthosis: yellow discoloration of the skin from abnormal causes. “The movie’s protagonists realized their friend might be in trouble when they saw his lemon-colored xanthosis, then by catching a graveyard smell, then by hearing about his appetite for brains.”

  • 2012 guetapens: an ambush, snare. “Admiral Ackbar, observing too late that the Rebel Alliance was in a deadly guetapens set by the Empire, shouted the obvious: ‘It’s a trap!’”

  • 2014 stichomythia: dialogue especially of altercation or dispute delivered by two actors in alternating lines. “The rapid-fire one-line-exchanges (stichomythia) between characters, so stilted in most translations, blaze here with intense hostility, especially in the deadly verbal duel of Creon with his son Haemon.” — Dec. 5, 2004

  • 2015 scherenschnitte: the art of cutting paper into decorative designs. “Call ahead to take part in special weekend workshops in Pennsylvania German crafts of scherenschnitte (paper cutting), quilling (coiled paper art), decorative egg scratching and open-hearth cooking.” — July 2, 2006

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