But defining bees never caught on—none of these recent attempts lasted for more than a few years. As the Define a Thon’s emcee Steve Kleinedler acknowledged to Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, the letter-by-letter suspense of the spelling bee “is a lot more exciting than watching someone taking a stab at a correct answer and sometimes making a lucky guess.”
As Zorn points out, though, the multiple-choice format works well on game shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” There should be ways to make vocabulary questions exciting to watch, and Scripps is taking the first steps to find out how. The payoff could be worth it: Beyond spelling bees and Scrabble, what’s to be gained from learning to spell abstruse words unmoored from their meanings? If Scripps can solve this showbiz challenge, bringing spelling and semantics together promises a fuller, more satisfying experience for contestants and viewers alike.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reachedat benzimmer.com/contact.