Against Spelling Bees

I hate spelling bees. More specifically: I hate Anglophone spelling bees, spelling bees in English.

Spelling bees contribute to the backward, Jeopardy-esque idea that being a person made in the image of Google or Wikipedia, stuffed with trivial factoids, amounts to being intelligent. This is a lie: it absolutely does not follow that memorizing names and dates, encyclopedias and dictionaries, creates an intelligent or wise person. Google and Wikipedia are not smart, of course, even thought they seem to “know” everything; and I know many well-informed people who also happen to be among the dullest, uninteresting, and most stupid people I’ve ever met.

The perverse fact that winning a spelling bee has become a mark of academic achievement is itself proof of the sick inversion at play in these violent word games. The toll that spelling bees take on the young hearts and minds of those who win and lose them is surely a form of psychic violence. The “common sense” idea that correct spelling — and literacy, for that matter — is to be held in high regard is totally arbitrary and not to be aspired to.

Spelling bees also promote an understanding of language that is arrogant and unsophisticated. Words do not mean anything in particular. Words do possess intrinsic meanings. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A “DEFINITION.” There are only common or shared usages. Words are used. For this reason, dictionaries, the canonical text of the spelling bee, ought to be abolished altogether or limited to use as archives or the past common usages of language.

(Dear spelling bee winners of past, present, and future: can you do more than spell? Can you really use these word-things? Can you misspell, like Twain and so many other literacy geniuses?)

What is most vexing about spelling bees is the language itself: English. Phonetic or systematically consistent languages have no need for spelling bees. Only a happy idiot could not be a decent speller in Spanish or Latin. (Although there is still the grammatical side of the equation, a caveat lost on these foolish spelling bees.) To prize the ritual of spelling bees, as we seem to do in this wretched country, is to admit to using an ugly, inferior, irrational patchwork of a language.

My indignation turns to total outrage when spelling bees insist on Anglicizing words that are not English (like quixote), to trying to help poor, miseducated chidren figure out how to spell them. At this point things become so topsy-turvy, so utterly inside out, they verge on comedy. Were this a joke, I would love and revel in it. But, sadly, it is not. These lunatics are serious.

Don’t fall into their trap: spelling bees are nothing more than a sociological oddity and a rather painful joke.


ps: If you are the person who would like to comment on my spelling in this post: how very clever of you!

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