Why Is It Known as a ‘Spelling Bee’?

A long-time listener in Prague named Jiří asked why spelling bees are called bees. What is a bee?

The most common explanation is that we can trace it back to the buzzing insects. Bees are cooperative and social; they live and work together in a hive, and people seem to perceive them as always working. As far back as the 1500s, people were saying busy workers were “as busy as bees.”

Hundreds of years later, the word “bee” was being used to describe events like quilting bees, and husking bees, where people would get together to do work like those buzzing, cooperative, and social insects. Although a spelling bee is more of a competition than a social working group, it still took on the name, maybe because it was a social activity for the community and spelling seemed like work.

That’s the origin in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Etymology Online.

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