Navigation Menu+

spelling / speller

Spelling. To tell or name the letters of, as a word; to enumerate in order, as letters. — Webster, 1882

Speller. A book containing exercises in spelling; a spelling-book. — Webster, 1882

We understand that a spelling school will be one of the amusements next week, what night we did not learn. — Iroquois Herald, January 12, 1883

I’ve always liked the spelling bee chapter in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie. You know, where Pa spells down the whole town by being able to spell the word xanthophyll.

I don’t really think I’m a much of a word nerd (I have pretty poor spelling and grammar skills to be someone who once taught both subjects), but I do remember being the only person in a college class who knew that the # on a phone was called an octothorp, and wondering why everybody else wasn’t as fascinated with Willard Espy’s Almanac of Words at Play as I was (I’ve read my copy to pieces). Science was as important as the arts in my schools growing up, so I not only knew how to spell xanthophyll before I read it in Little House, I knew what it meant.

As a Little House completest, I always wanted to find an old spelling book with xanthophyll in it, if there really was such a thing. Pa’s “blue-back speller” didn’t have it, but after searching for years, I found one back in 1998: Thomas Edmondson’s The Spelling Bee Manual for Competitors, Comprising a Selection of Upwards of 6000 Scientific and Other Difficult Words, published in London in 1876. (To show how long ago this was, I had to communicate with the university who had the copy in the U.K. via snail mail, and they mailed me a copy of the page with the word on it, but nothing more.) I don’t know for sure that there was an actual spelling bee in De Smet, that someone had this book, and that it was used, but I’d like to think so. The speller was recently scanned and put online; you can read/download it HERE. I wonder if Laura, Pa, and Mr. Foster were all able to spell steganopods, boustrophedon, and thaumaturgy, all found on the same page as xanthophyll…

Spelling book / Speller. In On the Banks of Plum Creek (see Chapter 20, “School”), Ma gives Laura and Mary her old schoolbooks to use; one is a speller. It’s possible that the speller was Noah Webster’s The American Spelling Book, more commonly called the Blue-back Speller because of its blue cover. Published first in 1783, the speller was the first in a three-volume set of American textbooks written for American children.

Spelling down / Spelling match / Spelling school. An important part of Little Town on the Prairie, spelling bees or matches or schools were mentioned in Wilder’s Pioneer Girl memoir in a similar fashion during the Ingallses’ second stay in Walnut Grove. Laura wrote that she was in the highest of two spelling classes in school and that every Friday night, there was a spelling school, attended by all the townspeople. Although it was Noah Webster who is credited with inventing the spelling bee, rules for a spelling competition are below, these from Edmondson’s book:

1st. The words to be proposed by the interrogator will be taken from —–, which shall be the standard for correctness for spelling, but any spelling given in an English Dictionary admitted by the referees will be allowed, on the production of the work.

2nd. The words will be drawn from a bag, and each competitor will be required to stand up, and spell the word allotted to him, audibly and distinctly.

3rd. A competitor will be entitled to have his word re-pronounced, and its meaning given, before beginning to spell it, but not afterwards.

4th. A competitor failing to spell a word to the satisfaction of the interrogator will be declared out of the competition.

5th. When the number of candidates is reduced to —, the competition will be concluded in writing, the same words given to all. No alterations of the letters of a word will be allowed; if a correction be requisite, the word must be erased and written afresh.


spelling (FB 1, 27; BPC 5, 16, 19-20; SSL 27; LTP 14, 18, 25; THGY 2-3, 5-6, 18; PG), see also orthography
     book / speller (BPC 5, 20; TLW 15; LTP 14, 18; THGY 2, 5-6; PG)
     spelling down / spelling-down / spelling match (BPC 21; LTP 18; PG)
     spelling school (PG)