May 31, 2013, - 11:50 am

I Call Foul on the National Spelling Bee – Left-Wing Spelling Police Get it Wrong on “Winning” Word

By Debbie Schlussel

Last night, Arvind V. Mahankali, the 13-year-old who won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But I call foul on this. And there’s a lot of political correctness involved–the attempt to water down English along with our national borders and everything else.



The “National” Spelling Bee, Arvind Mahankali & Knaidlach

You see, Mahankali won the Spelling Bee by “correctly” spelling the word, “knaidel.” But, in fact, there is no correct spelling of that word because it’s transliterated from Yiddish–the German/Hebrew hybrid language used by mostly Ashkenazic Jews primarily back in Europe. If you’re like me–a Jewish kid who grew up in a knowledgeable Jewish family in America, pre-2000s, you know the word. My mother and both my grandmothers made chicken soup with knaidels or kneidlach (the Yiddish plural of the word), which are essentially matzoh (or matza or matzah) balls–light, porous, doughy Jewish versions of soup croutons (and much more delectable and fun). If you’ve had chicken soup with matzoh balls, you’ve had knaidlach or k’naydlach (or however you want to spell it).

But there is NO correct English spelling of the word. In fact, you can spell it knaydle, or keneidle, knaidl, or k’naydel (and many other ways–all of which you’ll find on Google). It’s neither an English language word or a word that was originally spelled in any particular way in the English language, since it doesn’t come from that language, nor was it originally written using the English alphabet. There is NO correct English spelling of the word, just as there isn’t, for example, a correct spelling of Mohammed or Muhammad or Mohamad (with apologies for the comparison of a nice Jewish soup crouton to the name of a persecuting warrior who has inspired 1.8 billion worldwide to either engage in savage terrorist killings and or reprehensible behavior or morally support those who do).

So, who are the English spelling police who decided that “knaidel” is the correct spelling of a non-English word? It’s like deciding what is “art.”

And that goes to my other objection to the use of the word, “knaidel” or “knaydle” or “keneidel,” any of which is a correct spelling. If this is a “National” spelling bee–the National is supposed to refer to the nation of the United States of America (though the name of the nation in reference is strangely, conspicuously absent, likely by design)–then pick words that are genuinely English words and have distinct and certain English spellings. Yes, some foreign words have legitimately become part of the English vernacular–even some Yiddish words that have definite spellings in the English language, such as the word, “chutzpah,” which means utter nerve or gall (but can be good or bad, depending). Or words like, “copacetic“–the origins of which are reportedly from Black and other New Yorkers repeating Orthodox Jews who used the Hebrew phrase, “Kol B’Seder,” which means “everything’s in order” or “everything’s okay.”

But a National Spelling Bee in America should use English words. And, instead, the National Spelling Bee–with the use of words like “knaidel” and other foreign non-English words–is a not-so-veiled attempt to sully the English language and pretend–a la the left in America–that English is not the national language and that English is not English, but a combination of all foreign languages which are all just as equal. It’s very stark political correctness and the promotion of liberal ideas on American citizenship.

There are plenty of obscure, distinctly English words. But that is not what the Scripps Howard people want. They and those they’ve appointed to run the National Spelling Bee want to impress upon you that there is no distinct English (or national American language), just like the same ilk want you to know there is no distinct American culture, no distinct American citizens, no distinct national BORDERS, no distinct American law, and so on.

As much as the politically correct Spelling Police want to tell me that knaidel–like other foreign words–is an English word and has a distinct English spelling (it does not), they’re full of it. Knaidel or Kenaydl or draidel(the yiddish word for the spinning top Jews play with on Chanukah or Hannukah or Chanukkah, which can also be spelled, “dreidl,” “draydel,” and a gazillion other ways) ain’t an English word. And there ain’t no proper English spelling. Yes, I am a very proud Jewish-American and I’m honored that our dying European language has been honored with the winning spot in the National Spelling Bee. We Jews have contributed a lot to America from before its founding to date, including many foreign contributions to the English language. Tthere aren’t better words (in my book) than chutzpah, schmuck, putz, schmendrick/shmenrik/shmendrick, and zhlub/schlub/shlub. You’d be hard-pressed, though, to show that “knaidel” has reached the status of any of these and is part of the regular English vernacular, used by anyone other than Jews and cooks.

The National Spelling Bee should be about spelling distinctly ENGLISH words, not Indian words, not Asian words, not lesbian lacto-ovo vegan Muslim Egyptian colony artists’ words. But, unfortunately, that’s what the “National” Spelling Bee has become: a contest to spell obscure foreign words, whose transliterated spellings aren’t distinctly one way and whose origins are neither English nor American . . . or even from Latin or any of the Western romance languages. Yes, it’s yet another attack on the West and Western culture that those words are no longer good enough for a “National” Spelling Bee taking place in the nation that once was the United States of America.

So, with all due respect to Arvind Mahankali–the latest genius Indian-American kid to whip other American kids’ asses at spelling–you didn’t win the National Spelling Bee legitimately.

‘Cuz I can properly spell k’naydl a jillion different ways. Is it out of proportion to say that maybe the runner up should hire some lawyers and challenge this?

Today, the winner topped the National Spelling Bee by “correctly” spelling the benign “English” word, “knaidel.”

But tomorrow, it will be the malignant “English” word, “jizya” or “sharia” (or is that, shariah with an “h”?).

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23 Responses

Debbie, right on, as usual, all your points well taken. Speaking of Yiddish, my mother, who was the progeny of a Ukrainian tailor and a Polish seamstress who met and got married at Ellis Island in 1905, used some of that language around the house when I was growing up. Got it from her mother.

Also, thank you for correcting my impression of the spelling for the word zhlub. I always see it spelled schlub. Who knew?

But the salient point is that you . . .

MADE ME FREAKING HUNGRY!!! I haven’t had some good Jewish food in a LONG time. We have a place in town called the Shalom Bakery. Perhaps got its name from Jews, as Puerto Rico is a melting pot as much as anywhere else in the world, and Sephardic Jews have emigrated here on at least two occasions. Unfortunately, the Shalom Bakery is not run by Jews, and does not offer such fare. There are places that serve pretty good pastrami here, but unfortunately there is no chopped liver and a kasha knish to go with it.

We do have synagogues in Puerto Rico, which makes me believe there has to be a place where I can get the real thing. However, I don’t drive, and I don’t think those synagogues are within easy reach.

So, THANKS A LOT FOR MAKING ME HUNGRY!!! LOL!!! Have to head outside with the machetes and continuing slashing and slamming, cleaning up a farm that has seen no work for 10-15 years. I have plenty of free food here too, as I could cover many letters of the alphabet in either English or Spanish with what grows here.

Unfortunately, kasha knishes and chopped liver do NOT grow on trees. GRRRRRRRRR!!!

AfPR: It can be spelled, “schlub” (the Americanized version) or any other way, as there is no correct spelling of Yiddish words, but it’s really pronounced more like “zhlub.” So you make my point again. DS

Alfredo from Puerto Rico on May 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm

English is a West Germanic language and has assimilated a lot of foreign words to the extent they’re no longer foreign at all. Only German has a larger native vocabulary than English.

That said, its questionable whether “knaidel” qualifies as English because the absence of agreement on standardized spelling for that particular word. The same holds true for many other foreign words in English as well. What the national spelling bee is supposed to do is recognize the correct spelling of a native English word.

There’s a reason for classical rules regarding language and why they shouldn’t be changed to suit the changing mores of the culture. How else are we going to test literate attainment? A culture is defined by agreement on certain standards and norms. And that is what we’re in danger of losing sight of today.

NormanF on May 31, 2013 at 12:17 pm

We Jews rule the universe! Gut Shabbos to all.

Herb Glatter on May 31, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Given the way the spelling bee is evolving, in a few years we would have to get our kids to spell Mandarin or Cantonese words.

Feng-shuei, anyone?

The Reverend Jacques on May 31, 2013 at 12:57 pm

And in combining anti-semitism with political correctness, many of the articles about this event characterized “knaidel” as a German, rather than a Yiddish word.

Little Al on May 31, 2013 at 1:00 pm

While “knaidel” may or may not have a standardized spelling, the Bee’s official book is Webster’s 3rd New International dictionary. So 2nd place Pranav Sivakumar would only have a case if W3NID listed all variant spellings except knaidel.

As for the lack of USA in the official title of the contest, it is definitely by design, in the word of the Bee itself: We are the nation’s largest and longest-running educational promotion, administered on a not-for-profit basis by The E.W. Scripps Company and local spelling bee sponsors in the United States, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Department of Defense Schools in Europe; also, the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.

Robert on May 31, 2013 at 1:04 pm

I have to agree, Deb. When I heard it on the news my first thought was “These kids have to know how to spell foreign words too??” What if a kid gave the British spelling for an English word, like “sceptic?” Would he be disqualified or not? I mean, I know it’s just a spelling bee, but really I think you have a point about the runner-up lawyering up!

Joe Guiney on May 31, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Debbie – “… that our dying European language …”

I beg to disagree. Yiddish was dying but that trend began to reverse itself at least 3 years ago. Mostly due to the birthrates and large families of very religious (mostly Hassidic) Jews, the number of “new” people being born and then speaking Yiddish began to far surpass the number of Yiddish speakers who were dying.

I_AM_ME on May 31, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Yiddish is a German dialect written in the Hebrew alphabet. Its been considered a language of the Jewish Galut and the Zionists frowned on it. Jews were admonished to speak Hebrew in Mandate Palestine. Apart from Sholem Aleichem’s famous stories and the work of Isaac Balshevis Singer, Yiddish now appears to be mainly of historical interest.

    NormanF on May 31, 2013 at 8:13 pm

This spelling bee thing is really kind of stupid. Notwithstanding the matter of foreign words that is covered here, most of the winning words are ridiculously obscure.

In most cases, people have never heard of them in their entire life. Moreover, the winners either get lucky with their guess, or actually memorize “known spelling bee stumpers.”

Just one more nerd exercise masquerading as intelligence.

Prometheus on May 31, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Look for Ebonics to be included in future spelling bees.
Yo dog, we be spelling like ho on crack back in da hood.

Steve G. on May 31, 2013 at 4:44 pm

The points in this article are certainly on target. And there’s no question that Yiddish words and expressions have long entered the mainstream vernacular. They have a uniquely colorful “feel” and sound about them that makes them understood even though the speakers may not even know that they’re using Yiddish words, let alone undertand their (usually) German/Hebrew origins.

Nonethless, we have to give those young people in the spelling bee contest a hand, as they’ve demonstrated great poise under pressure. If I were up there on stage, I’d be having schpilkes! (Also spelled schpilkas and schpilkus, while we’re on this topic.) That word, by the way, I picked up from the great legendary multi-talented entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr., of all people. He once said that there were often times when he got schpilkes before a performance, and the word has stuck with me ever since. Again, it’s one of those perfect words that sounds and “feels” like the underlying meaning of the word.

Ralph Adamo on May 31, 2013 at 5:07 pm

“Just one more nerd exercise masquerading as intelligence.” – Prometheus

Have to agree with him on the above quote. That’s true of a lot in America. Self aggrandizement has been one of the major flaws in our culture since us Baby Boomers came of age, and began to feel our oats. We have been passing this mental disorder on to our children and grandchildren since, preening ourselves on the basis of nothing.

Alfredo from Puerto Rico on May 31, 2013 at 8:55 pm

The spelling itself is rather secondary in my opinion. While there is a certain amount of rote learning/memorizing going on, preparation for the Bee encourages kids to really dig into the roots of English- learning common Latin/Greek roots that permeate our lexicon is a pretty basic strategy that pays dividends in later academic settings, be it Classical Studies, French, or English Composition. The Bee also brings kids in contact with the more esoteric (and usually Germanic) words that are largely relegated to technical disciplines (thalweg, dehnstufe, kaumographer, and einkanter were all words the Finalists had to contend with). And the vast majority of the top performers (and undoubtedly most of the folks who make it to Nationals) are clearly aces in multiple academic subjects, so they aren’t “one trick ponies” or tiny little Rain Men spouting out words.

Compare the winning words from the earliest days of the contest (albumen, luxuriance, condominium, initials, therapy, KNACK), with the words these kids are dealing with today, and at least the words they’ve tangled with are impressive.

Agreed, a word with multiple accepted spellings was a poor choice to include on the list, and I can’t say I’m a fan of the “National” Spelling Bee being open to non-US students (the only non-50 winners have been from Jamaica and Puerto Rico), but overall the benefits accrued from simply getting to that level of competition are considerable and worth encouraging. Not “Just one more nerd exercise masquerading as intelligence”, as Prometheus contends.

Robert on June 1, 2013 at 12:22 am

As much as Debbie Schlussel gets it right, on this occasion, I must call ‘foul’ on her foul, for several reasons.

• The Bee has a particular dictionary that is used, so the student got the word correct based upon what is in the required dictionary.
• The Bee is not ‘American’, per se (although this one was held in the USA). It is sponsored by a company. If anything it should be called the Scripts Spelling Bee, or some such thing.
• There aren’t many English words that are ‘American made’. Most of what we use was imported from England, and before that France and Germany, and before that Latin and Greek. In fact,I encouraged my daughter – who always loved to read – to study Latin in High School as a great way to improve her vocabulary for the SATs. It worked.
• The US is a melting pot and words from many cultures have been added to our vocabulary over the years. Knowing that vocabulary allows people from many backgrounds to feel as though they fit in. Yes, we all need those things that make us feel unique, just as the more we know about each other’s cultures allows us all to feel we are part of the larger America.
• Not everything is meant to diminish what is “American”, or as Dr. Freud once said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Abi Gezunt on June 1, 2013 at 2:32 am

“Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.” From Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare.

In the end, words are merely sounds and letters. What really matters is the meaning behind the words.

For a lesson about that, see this 6 minute clip from “The Miracle Worker.” It’s a scene that I consider to be one of the most moving in cinema history and well worth 6 minutes of your time. Written by William Gibson and directed by Arthur Penn (no relation to Sean Penn), with Anne Bancroft (late wife of Mel Brooks) and Patty Duke, Victor Jory, Inga Swenson, and Andrew Prine. Pulling it all together into a powerful emotional experience is the great music of Laurence Rosenthal (who Debbie might be interested to know was born in Detroit, Michigan).

Ralph Adamo on June 1, 2013 at 7:44 pm

And now the clip from “The Miracle Worker”:

Ralph Adamo on June 1, 2013 at 7:46 pm

I’m late to this, but I wonder. If there are multiple ways of spelling a word correctly and a contestant gets any one of them right, aint he a legitimate winner?

After all, in such game shows, the first one w/ the right answer wins, regardless of whether his/her competitors knew the answers.

But I do agree w/ Debbie that a lot of words that have made it into the contest in recent years simply don’t belong in English in the first place.

Infidel on June 2, 2013 at 3:22 am

But, in fact, there is no correct spelling of that word because it’s transliterated from Yiddish–the German/Hebrew hybrid language used by mostly Ashkenazic Jews primarily back in Europe.

Dear Debbie:

You took the words right off my keyboard.

Miranda Rose Smith on June 2, 2013 at 6:50 am

Sadly, our news media has a “Jews is news” syndrome where everything that has anything to do with Jews is somehow an important and compelling “news story”. That’s the real problem, Debbie.

WRT the spelling bee, the quiz has several “right answers” and that’s not fair. According to one news article, the “standard” is the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Thus, the contestant had to spell it precisely as the Merriam-Webswter dictionary presented it.

While I’m hardly a student of English, most dictionaries listing Yiddish words routinely offer alternative spellings. I’d be curious as to how the M-W dictionary presented the winning word. Were there alternative spellings offered? If so, would any of them had counted as a correct answer?

I agree that transliterated words from foreign languages that don’t use the U.S. English alphabet for their original spelling should NOT be a part of a spelling bee. In my view, it allows for more than one correct answer.

It’s really that simple.

There is NO Santa Claus on June 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

Our peaceful Muslim friends should not feel slighted (known as being “enraged” in Muslim culture) by the use of a Yiddish word. Salaam, another transliteration, was also included in this contest of English spelling.

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