The importance of root words in the spelling bee

Divide and conquer – is an approach which is often seen in politics or in warfare. The phrase also has immense significance in modern day computer algorithms. The idea of this divide and conquer policy is quite simple.

the importance of root words

Take something large or difficult to handle, and break it down into smaller chunks. As you divide the object, it loses its shape, size, and most importantly, its ability to stop you from overpowering it. But what does this have to do with spelling bees?

As you prepare yourself for the spelling bee, you will come face to face with a plethora of long and difficult words, which will be very hard for you to grasp. The divide and conquer policy is to be applied here. The word in question, is to be broken down into its root words or into the words from which it originated from.

In this article, we will explore etymology, root or origin words, and answer two important questions – why, and how etymology or root words can help you beat the competition at the spelling bee.

What is etymology

Etymology is the field of study which deals with the origin or history of words. It is the investigation of word histories.

Irrespective of the language, each and every word that we use or know of has its own backstory; it has its own country or region of origin, and its own history. Words are born and formed in a lot of different ways. Etymology deals with the root of these words. It helps to trace the words back to their original forms or roots.

Although you as a speller do not need to master etymology, you do need to understand how it works, and how you can make it work in your favor at the spelling bee.

Why is it important

Knowing the origin of your words is very important if you want to be known as a good speller. Spelling lists are often divided into sections based on the language of their origin. The reason behind such categorization of the words is to acquaint the spellers with the language of the original words.

Experts and linguists have found that English has borrowed words from over 300 different languages. Besides, a huge chunk of the English vocabulary can be attributed to Latin and Greek words alone. The list then continues with words whose roots can be traced back to French, German, and Asian origins. Root words coming from all these places found their way into the English language and have been blended together with other words (from the same or different origins) to compose longer English words.

Let us take a look at an example and dissect it to see how etymology or root words can be of importance to you spelling bee enthusiasts.

The word ‘smaragdine’ (pronounced: smuh-rag-din) comes from the Latin word ‘smaragdus’ meaning ‘emerald.’ The word ‘smaragd’ is often used in the English language to refer to emeralds. But, in this context, the word is used to denote something that looks like an emerald or has the color of emerald. If you are given this word to spell at the spelling bee, and then you are provided with a sentence containing the word, you can tell that it is referring to the emerald color of an object, and hence, you can spell it with ease.

You need to understand that all difficult or long words are nothing but a combination of a few shorter words. Although short, these root words have immense significance both in the meaning as well as in the spelling of the words we know and use today.


Where to find root words

Look up the etymology of the word you are curious about on the internet to learn about its history and origin. If the word is a combination of two or more words or fragments of words, you will be made aware of that as well.

Words that have originated from different countries may have certain rules and/or patterns that can help you in spelling the words.

Apart from the internet, you can also look up the root words in a dictionary. Merriam Websters and the Oxford English Dictionary have vast information on these root words.

Also, check our featured list sections in Spelling Bee Ninja, where you will find many lists made from root words coming from different cultures.

How should one approach root words for their spelling bee preparations

  1. It is not at all necessary for you to note down and study all the root words or etymology for all the words in your spelling bee word lists. The purpose of studying some of the root words or minimum etymology is to help you retain the difficult words more easily, not to make you an etymology guru.
  2. If you are studying from an existing list of root words, it is better to skim through it first to make sure that all your words are there. If you find something is missing (which is very likely), you should immediately note that word and its origin/root words down on the list.
  3. Practice writing the root words. Etymology is a difficult field. It takes a lot of time to get everything inside your head. Hence, you need to practice it in the right way if you want to make good out of it.


To be honest, at this point of your spelling bee journey, we can tell that everything just seems like a blur. Everyday, you are being asked to do something new or something a bit more difficult. But that is because the competition is getting tougher. If you take a look at the interviews of spelling bee winners, you will hear them say the same. In fact, these interviews will also show you how important it was for those champions to practice root words along with etymology of the difficult words.

In 2019, the Scripps National Spelling Bee had to crown not one, not two, not three, but EIGHT CHAMPIONS. THEY RAN OUT OF WORDS. You can easily assume how tough the competition is these days. Hence, put in a little effort. It is difficult, but not rocket science.

Reference: Spelling Bee: Tracing the origin of words

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