The “bee” in spelling bee means a gathering or get together. The earliest documented case of this word appearing with this meaning was in 1769, referring to a spinning bee, where people would gather to protest purchasing goods from Britain due to the high taxes on those items.
Any sort of major competition or work gathering, with a specific
task in mind, was a 'bee'. Gatherings that were commonly labeled
with 'bee' were: apple bee, logging bee, quilting bee, barn bee,
hanging bee, sewing bee, field bee, and corn husking bee, among
The popular theory among etymologists today is that it is likely
that the actual origin of bee, in the sense of gathering, derives
from the Old English bēn (prayer / favor), or the Middle English
'bene'. Finally, this resulted in “bean” meaning “help given by
The first US National Spelling Bee was in 1925, sponsored by the
Louisville Courier-Journal. Nine finalists competed in the first
spelling bee in Washington D.C. The winning word that year was
“gladiolus”, spelled by Frank Neuhauser.
In 1941, E.W. Scripps Company began sponsoring the National Spelling
Bee and changed the name to Scripps National Spelling Bee.
It offers a study booklet to prospective contestants that contains
between 1,000 and 4,000 words. It also currently offers a list of
over 24,000 words that include all words used in the National
Spelling Bee since 1950, sorted by frequency of use in the contest.
The word that has been used the most in the National Spelling Bee is
The winner of the National Spelling Bee receives several prizes
including: $30,000 cash prize from the National Spelling Bee; $5,000
cash prize from Sigma Phi Epsilon Educational Foundation; $2,500
savings bond; a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster; a
lifetime membership to Britannica Online Premium Encyclopedia;
$2,600 worth of reference works; and a trophy. The second place
contestant receives $12,500.
To date, 45 girls have won the spelling bee vs. 41 boys. That is
sure to create a buzz.