Friday, July 8, 2011

I'm a fan of the Scripps bee and was just wondering what's the hardest word you've seen in terms of both orthographic trickiness and usage/popularity?

2011: sarangousty (round 12/20, atypical Persian vowels, Google=7,100)
2010: engysseismology (round 6/9, rare Greek root with rarer repeating consonant, Google=9,880)
2009: schizaffin (round 12/16, nearly unsolvable etymology - Greek plus Latin to ISV plus Latin combining form, Google=286 and more than half of those are spelling bee pages)
I turned to our panel of experts. First, from Nupur Lala:
Great question! "Engysseismology" wins my vote, with "schizaffin," "aitch," and "iliopsoas" as closely tied for runner-up. I consider the "surprise element" of the word, which makes some words seem less difficult when viewing from home as opposed to when a speller receives the word. The surprise element can consist of the dreaded "etymology unknown" to a nearly unsolvable etymology to just too much to figure out per syllable. It causes spellers to panic and stop thinking. "Heiligenschein" given in 2006 was a great example of a word that illustrates this principle. It was not intrinsically difficult but would have sent most spellers packing because it sounds intimidating, tests knowledge of German at a very deep level and presents a potential pitfall with almost every syllable.

"Engysseismology" has a surprise element that would have sent me running off stage. The word's length, irregularity within the roots and how terrifying it actually is when spelled correctly all make the word seem cruel in retrospect. I cannot remember any word standing out in my mind like that otherwise.
And Amy Goldstein:
I'll just point you to the widget in my column ...
The five hardest words of the past three years:
. engysseismology, 2010
. Leishmanic, 2010
. myoclonus, 2008
. palatschinken, 2009
. phenazocine, 2010
From this year's list I'll add naumkeag, puszta and sangsue. Was tempted to add phanerogam just because I was thrown off by what I had thought was a Latin root, but it was actually New Latin, so never mind. Also, it has the root phan- = visible in it.


  1. Charles8:54 AM

    I don't know if it's ever been used in the National Bee--I remember it from the 1980s-era Scripps-provided study guides--but "couac" was one of my favorite insidious words. It sounds just like "quack." The language of origin would help spellers know the difference, but the sudden, distracting appearance of ducks in your head can make it hard to spell.

  2. Sophietje8:59 AM

    For my money, it is 'aitch'. Not intrinsically difficult-I mean I can pronounce it!- but it's just something that should never be spelled in a million years. We have a perfectly acceptable way to spell it: H.

  3. I thought "<span>uayeb" was particularly thorny this year.  Mayan, really?</span>

  4. Uncle Spike2:15 PM

    Adam: agreed. Uayeb was the most inscrutable word I heard this year. I think German contributes a lot. I would have to add "zwischenspiel," "schwarmerei" and "schuhplattler" to the list of toughest words given...well, in the past 10 years, at least. As far as this year's bee goes, I also got a kick out of "renminbi" and "abhinaya." Also, "zanja" stymied me - I don't recall ever hearing an "ng" sound in Spanish.

    Charles: I remember "couac," too! One of the more amusing words from the Words of the Champions back in the day.

  5. sophetje3:43 PM

    My original post disappeared! :(    Anyhow, the word that will always stick in my head as the worst ever was 'aitch'.  I mean, we have a perfectly acceptable way to spell it already: H!   It was several years ago (maybe mid-90's) and I still remember the look on that poor girl's face when she asked to hear it in a sentence.  The example was something like "Aitch is the 8th letter in the alphabet".   She was as befuddled as I was.   At first I thought it must be a trick question!

  6. I agree about "aitch." "Aitch" was just awful and unnecessary. Amy and Uncle Spike threw in some good candidates with "naumkeag," "zwischenspiel," "sangsue," and "zanja." I know people will disagree with me but "preux" was pretty terrible unless one had viewed it before.

  7. Uncle Spike11:27 AM

    Nope, Nupur, I'm totally on board with you about "preux." It was only after the bee that I realized that if you could think of the French number deux, you might be able to pull it off without having seen it.
    I seem to remember one other bee (1990?) where some hapless girl was given a word without any helpful information. One (and only one) weird pronunciation, no known etymology, a really unhelpful definition, and equally unhelpful sentence...and I really wish I could remember the word! I may be underselling it, but it definitely ranked with "aitch" as one of the cruelest words ever given.