spelling bee

Slack Tide: Bee-ing and nothingness

It’s hip to bee square.

  • By Geoff Kirsch For the Juneau Empire
  • Friday, February 24, 2023 2:58pm
  • Neighbors

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away — by which I mean New York City circa 2000 — I was an aspiring comedy writer and performer. The latter owed to necessity, as nobody else would perform the comedy I wrote.

Surprisingly enough, I happened to be a fairly good performer in general, particularly voice work. I mean, not good enough to stay in New York. Still, I scored several gigs, video games and radio ads, mostly, and earned enough to pay for all the pizza it took to get me through the recording sessions. What? I eat when I’m nervous.

Anyway, fast-forward two decades. I still write what some might call comedy — you can do that anywhere, especially if you’re content with earning pizza money. But in Southeast Alaska, opportunities for voice work are about as common as perfectly ripe avocados. And like perfectly ripe avocados, you gorge yourself whenever and wherever you find them.

That’s how I found myself agreeing to be the “pronouncer” for the 2023 Juneau Public School District Spelling Bee earlier this week. And I’ll tell you it took every ounce of restraint not to open the contest with a resounding “Let’s get ready to ruuuuuummmmbbble!” (I may have done it during sound check.)

Fort those who haven’t attended a spelling bee recently, the pronouncer reads the words for the spellers, sometimes offering parts of speech, definitions and use in a sentence — all while trying not to crack up at the constant height disparity between each contestant and the microphone.

While I took my job seriously — I wore a button down shirt and everything — again like avocados, I thoroughly enjoyed the spelling bee experience. Let’s just say I was “stung” by the “bug.” In other words, I really got a good “buzz” on. OK, I’ll stop now. But you knew the bee puns were en route.

Indeed, I’ve been thinking about spelling bees for days now, long after I pronounced the winning word: “Maneuverable: [adjective] capable of being steered or directed while in motion. Maneuverable.” Of course by “thinking” I mean reading about them on Wikipedia. What? That’s a type of thinking.

Turns out, spelling bees enjoy a rich history. Like miniature golf, pets in sweaters and cheese in a can, spelling bees originated in the United States. The earliest print evidence of spelling “bees” dates back to 1850, although historians trace spelling “matches” to 1808. Before that, there were spelling “duels;” and before that, spelling “jousts.”

Historically, the word “bee” has been used to describe a get-together for communal work, like a quilting “bee.” You wonder what contemporary spelling bee relevance might be with a slight rebranding. Five words: spelling “steel cage battle royale.”

Although, come to think of it now, a few years ago I judged my daughter’s school’s Battle of the Books and that wasn’t what I expected at all. Turns out kids don’t throw library materials at each other until someone surrenders. Who knew?

Anyway… Throughout the 1800s, spelling bees began appearing across the country as a way to motivate students to learn the standardized spelling advocated by Noah Webster’s popular book “The Blue-Backed Speller.” If you haven’t read it, I won’t ruin the ending, but it involves a zebra.

These origins lend spelling bees a Rockwellian aura, harkening back to the “good old days” of sleigh rides, fishin’ holes and tuberculosis, to a time before “lulz” and smiling poop emojis took over written discourse.

The annual United States National Spelling Bee started in 1925; since 1941, it’s been hosted by the E.W. Scripps Company. In fact, the winner of the JSD Spelling Bee competes at the state level, whose winner goes on to regionals, whose winner, in turn, goes to the 95th National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, this June. First prize: $50,000. Kinda makes you wish you’d made your kid study that spelling list. Daddy needs a Tesla!

Of course, like all spectator sports, National Spelling Bee viewership has experienced a sharp decline in recent years. The entire tournament was once broadcast on ESPN, with the championship rounds on ABC. No longer. ABC dropped the telecast in 2013. Last year, the event moved from ESPN to Scripps co-owned networks Bounce TV and Ion Television. I watch a lot of TV, and I’ve never heard of those channels.

And so I offer one last surefire idea to beef up audiences: Spelling bee… on ice!

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