One hundred years ago today, a newly elected President Woodrow Wilson sat down at the New Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., to watch a spelling bee. An equal number of newspaper reporters and members of Congress were going head-to-head in a competition that promised to determine “the best speller in the United States.”
The event was much like the Scripps National Spelling Bee held last week outside Washington, D.C., with a few notable exceptions. Unlike a certain Congressman from Illinois, none of the participants in the 2013 bee misspelled the word satan. More important, the winning word from 1913 did not have complicated Yiddish roots that led to fights over matzo balls.
The word that earned 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali a giant trophy on May 30 was knaidel, a Yiddish word for a small dumpling—or matzo ball—commonly scooped out of soup in Jewish households, especially during Passover. The day after the bee, the New York Times reported that America’s Yiddish authority, known as YIVO, didn’t agree with the spelling. Their experts would have rendered the winning word as kneydl. Experts at Merriam-Webster, the bee’s official dictionary, are meanwhile standing by their variation. So who’s right?
The short answer is, arguably, everybody. Yiddish, a language mashing Hebrew, German and Slavic roots, was once standard usage for Ashkenazic Jews. The Yiddish knaidel, written in Hebrew characters, was derived from the German knödel—which means the word went through three languages and two alphabets before making its way into an American-English dictionary. “It ends up being a game of telephone,” says Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large for Merriam-Webster. “We’re not saying that you can’t spell it any other way. We’re saying that it’s overwhelmingly spelled this way.”
Sokolowski provides a caveat: that knaidel is overwhelmingly spelled that way in published English prose, like American-Jewish cookbooks from the 1950s. And he produces a graph from Google’s Ngram Viewer to prove his point. (For those unfamiliar, Google Ngram charts how often words have been used in certain corpora, like English literature, over selected time spans.):
Merriam-Webster contains only one variation of the word, and young Mahankali regurgitated that spelling, so he’s safe in his title. The Oxford English Dictionary lists others, like kneydel and knaydl. But while one may be more popular than another, they’re all inconclusive English transliterations. “It’s a classic case of how a good dictionary merely records how words are used and spelled rather than prescribing,” linguist Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon, tells TIME. “Either way, I can’t imagine any situation where you would need to spell it one particular way … unless you’re passing notes to the waiter.” Or, he concedes, in a spelling bee.
The critics came out after the spelldown back in 1913, too. An Ohio congressman and history professor named Frank B. Willis eventually bested 27 of his peers – including Rep. Martin Foster, the unfortunate contestant to spell satan as s-a-t-e-n. After his win, cheeky writers protested some of the words from the bee for being too obscure. “We say of caoutchouc, as we say of the rest of the words by which Mr. Willis triumphed, that we don’t know how to spell it and are proud of the fact,” wrote the New York Tribune. “Furthermore, we hope we never will know how, and we view with distrust anybody who does.”
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.