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The 26 Toughest Winning Words from the National Spelling Bee

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been a yearly tradition since the 1920s. How would you fare trying to spell these baffling winning words?

national spelling bee logoAlex Wong/Getty Images

The Bee must go on

For the first time since World War II, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has been canceled. It won’t be held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that spelling enthusiasts won’t be able to tune in to the often nail-biting competition. As sad as that is, especially for the eager young participants, we can still take a look back down memory lane at some of the seriously mind-boggling tough words that previous winners spelled right. Get warmed up with these tricky words even English speakers have trouble spelling.

Peg McCarthy, Lyn Sue Kahng Peg McCarthy of Topeka, Kansas, spells the world "deification" to win the 51st National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., . The runner-up Lyn Sue Kahng, seated left, puts her head in her hands. Kahng is from San DiegoBob Daugherty/Shutterstock

Winning word 1928: albumen

Who won: Betty Robinson, a 13-year-old from Indiana

How to say it: “al-byoo-muh n”

What it means: egg white (as well as a type of protein found in egg whites and milk)

Don’t miss these hilarious and cringe-worthy spelling mistakes you won’t believe were printed.

Neetu Chandak of Geneva New York Celebrates After Correctly Spelling the Word 'Perciatelli' in the Semi-final Round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington Dc in Washington Dc Usa on 28 May 2009 the Annual Event Began in 1925 with Nine Contestants This Year 293 Children Competed Epa/matthew Cavanaugh United States WashingtonMatthew Cavanaugh/Shutterstock

Winning word 1929: asceticism

Who won: Virginia Hogan, a 12-year-old from Nebraska

How to say it: “uhsetuh-siz-uh m”

What it means: the practice of avoiding indulgences and temptations, usually for religious reasons

Think you’re smarter than a fifth grader? Try naming these U.S. states without their vowels.

13-year-old Modhura Chakravarty of Lafayette Indiana Spells a Word Into Her Hand During the Semifinals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington Dc Usa 04 June 2010 United States WashingtonJim Lo Scalzo/Shutterstock

Winning word 1953: soubrette

Who won: Elizabeth Hess, a 13-year-old from Arizona

How to say it: “soo-bret

What it means: a high female vocal range or an actress in an opera with such a vocal range

Check out these beautiful romantic words from other languages that have no English equivalent—and are definitely prettier than these spelling bee words.

Winning word 1955: crustaceology

Who won: Sandra Sloss, a 13-year-old from Illinois

How to say it: “crus-tay-shee-aw-lo-jee”

What it means: the study of crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp

This is why there’s a difference between “travelled vs traveled.”

Margaret Peterson, of Granger, Ind., competes during the third round at the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee in WashingtonDrew Angerer/Shutterstock

Winning word 1969: interlocutory

Who won: Susan Yoachum, a 14-year-old from Texas

How to say it: “in-ter-lok-yuh-tawr-ee”

What it means: given during the course of a legal action

This is how words get removed from the dictionary.

Jonathan Knisely Jonathan P. Knisely,12, of Mullica Hills, N.J., holds his winner's trophy high after winning the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. On May 29, 2014, Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., and Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Texas, were declared co-champions of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling BeeBob Daugherty/Shutterstock

Winning word 1971: shalloon

Who won: Jonathan Knisely, a 12-year-old from New Jersey

How to say it: “sha-loon  

What it means: a type of twilled fabric

Loving these spelling bee words? Here are some English words that don’t mean anything close to what they look like.

SPELLING BEE Robin Kral, 14, of Lubbock, Texas, left, holds his trophy after winning the 1972 National Spelling Bee in Washington. He out-spelled Lauren Pringle, 13, right, of Buffalo, N.Y., to win the titleAP/REX/Shutterstock

Winning word 1972: macerate

Who won: Robin Kral, a 14-year-old from Texas

How to say it: masuh-reyt”

What it means: to soften (usually food) by soaking in liquid

Mattia H Phaneuf 13 of West Tisbury Massachusetts Spells Her Word During the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington Dc On Tuesday 31 May 2006 the Winner of the Competition Will Be Announced For the First Time On Live Prime Time Television Tomorrow Evening There Are 275 Spellers in the CompetitionStefan Zaklin/Shutterstock

Winning word 1974: hydrophyte

Who won: Julie Ann Junkin, a 12-year-old from Alabama

How to say it: hahy-druh-fahyt”

What it means: an aquatic plant, one that grows only on or in water

While you’ve probably used some of these spelling bee words incorrectly, these are the 70 words and phrases you’ve definitely been using wrong.

Katie Kerwin, Julie Won Katie Kerwin of Denver, Colo., jumps for joy in Washington after winning the 52nd annual National Spelling Bee, by correctly spelling "virescence" and "maculature." Pennsylvania Julie Won, background, wears the face of a runner-up. Miss Won finished third in the bee last yearCharles Harrity/Shutterstock

Winning word 1979: maculature

Who won: Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, a 13-year-old from Colorado

How to say it: mac-yoo-luh-chur”

What it means: in art, a printing impression made to remove excess ink

Kavya Shivashankar Age 13 of Olathe Kansas Correctly Spells the Word 'Laodicean' to Win the Final Round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington Dc in Washington Dc Usa On 28 May 2009 the Annual Event Began in 1925 with Nine Contestants This Year 293 Children CompetedMichael Reynolds/Shutterstock

Winning word 1988: elegiacal

Who won: Rageshree Ramachandran, a 13-year-old from California

How to say it: “el-i-jahyuh k-uh l”

What it means: sorrowful or lamenting

Watchf Associated Press Domestic News Washington United States APHS 62ND NATIONAL SPELLING BEE Scott Isaacs,14, of Litteton, Colorado, holds up a trophy after winning the 62nd annual National Spelling Bee in Washington . Isaacs an eight-grader correctly spelled "spolitor" to win the competitionRICK BOWMER/Shutterstock

Winning word 1989: spoliator

Who won: Scott Isaacs, a 14-year-old from Colorado

How to say it: spoh-lee-eyt-uhr”

What it means: someone who plunders or robs

Check out these hilarious words that sound completely fake (and their meanings).

Amanda Goad, Dan Thomasson Amanda Goad, 13, of Richmond, Va., holds up her trophy after spelling "lyceum" correctly to win the 65th annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., . Dan Thomasson, vice president of Scripps-Howard celebrates at rightDoug Mills/Shutterstock

Winning word 1992: lyceum

Who won: Amanda Goad, a 13-year-old from Virginia

How to say it: “lahy-seeuh m”

What it means: an institution or building that hosts lectures and other educational programs

Ned G. Andrews, William Burleigh Ned G. Andrews, 13, a seventh-grader from Knoxville, Tenn., is congratulated by William Burleigh, chief operating officer of Scripps Howard Inc., after winning the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.CJ. Scott Applewhite/Shutterstock

Winning word 1994: antediluvian

Who won: Ned G. Andrews, a 13-year-old from Tennessee

How to say it: “an-tee-di-loo-vee-uh n”

What it means: taking place before the Great Flood in the Bible; extremely old-fashioned

Speaking of old-fashioned, find out the 10 uncommon English words we should totally bring back.

CONLEY Sean Conley, 13, of Shakopee, Minn., holds a trophy after winning the 74th annual National Spelling Bee in WashingtonANN HEISENFELT/Shutterstock

Winning word 2001: succedaneum

Who won: Sean Conley, a 13-year-old from Minnesota

How to say it: “suhk-si-dey-nee-uh m”

What it means: a substitute or replacement, usually for medicine

GUNTURI Sai Gunturi, 13, of Dallas, reacts agter winning the 76th annual National Spelling Bee in WashingtonRON EDMONDS/Shutterstock

Winning word 2003: pococurante

Who won: Sai R. Gunturi, a 13-year-old from Texas

How to say it: “poh-koh-kooran-tee”

What it means: uncaring, apathetic (as well as a person with those qualities)

Want another challenge? This difficult spelling test from 1974 will drive you crazy.

Scripps National Spelling bee Champion, Anurag Kashyup and President George W Bush - 18 JulREX/Shutterstock

Winning word 2005: appoggiatura

Who won: Anurag Kashyap, a 13-year-old from California

How to say it: uh-poj-uhtoo ruh”

What it means: a music note played as an embellishment on the main beat

Yes, these young spelling whizzes are definitely geniuses. Could you be a genius? Take this quiz to find out.

Anamika Veeramani Anamika Veeramani, 14, of North Royalton, Ohio, looks at her trophy after winning the 2010 National Spelling Bee in Washington, onJacquelyn Martin/Shutterstock

Winning word 2010: stromuhr

Who won: Anamika Veeramani, a 14-year-old from Ohio

How to say it: straw-muhr”

What it means: a medical instrument that determines the amount of blood flowing through a vein or artery

Snigdha Nandipati Snigdha Nandipati, 14, of San Diego, right, and her brother Sujan Nandipati, hoist up her trophy after she won the National Spelling Bee with the word "guetapens" in Oxon Hill, Md., onJacquelyn Martin/Shutterstock

Winning word 2012: guetapens

Who won: Snigdha Nandipati, a 14-year-old from California

How to say it: “get-uh-paw

What it means: a trap or a snare

This is the real reason some English words have silent letters.

Ansun Sujoe, 13, of Fort Worth, Texas, left, and Sriram Hathwar, 14, of Painted Post, N.Y., raise the championship trophy after being named co-champions of the National Spelling Bee,, in Oxon Hill, MdEvan Vucci/Shutterstock

Winning words 2014: feuilleton + stichomythia

Who won: Ansun Sujoe, a 13-year-old from Texas, and Sriram Hathwar, a 14-year-old from New York, tied for first place after exhausting the entire list of words

How to say them: “foi-yuhtawn” + “stik-uhmith-ee-uh”

What they mean: a part of a newspaper for fiction, essays, and other lighter reading; a Greek drama technique where two characters speak alternately

Learn the words for these everyday things you never knew had names.

Vanya Shivashankar, Gokul Venkatachalam. Vanya Shivashankar, 13, left, of Olathe, Kan., left, and Gokul Venkatachalam, 14, of St. Louis, hold up the trophy as co-champions after winning the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, MdAndrew Harnik/Shutterstock

Winning words 2015: scherenschnitte + nunatak

Who won: Gokul Venkatachalam, a 14-year-old from Missouri, and Vanya Shivashankar, a 13-year-old from Kansas, tied for first place after exhausting the entire list of words

How to say them: shay-ren-shnit-tuh” + “nuhnuh-tak”

What they mean: the artistic technique of cutting paper to form a symmetrical design; a peak of rock above an icy or snowy surface

We know it’s hard to spell these spelling bee words but watch out for these other common spelling mistakes that spell check won’t catch.

Jairam Hathwar, Nihar Janga Nihar Janga, 11, of Austin, Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, 13, of Painted Post, N.Y., hold up the trophy after being named co-champions at the 2016 National Spelling Bee, in National Harbor, Md., onJacquelyn Martin/Shutterstock

Winning words 2016: feldenkrais + gesellschaft

Who won: Nihar Janga, an 11-year-old from Texas, and Jairam Hathwar, a 13-year-old from New York, tied for first place after exhausting the entire list of words

How to say them: fell-den-krice” + “guh-zell-shawft”

What they mean: a method of exercise therapy that emphasizes connections between the brain and body; social relationships based on duty or obligation, not camaraderie

Check out the other crazy hard words from the last ten National Spelling Bees.

Ananya Vinay, 12, from Fresno, Calif., holds the trophy after being declared the winner of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Oxon Hill, MdAP/REX/Shutterstock

Winning word 2017: marocain

Who won: Ananya Vinay, a 12-year-old from California, became the first solo winner since 2013!

How to say it: “maruh-keyn”

What it means: a type of fabric made from silk or wool

Karthik Nemmani (L) poses with the championship trophy and E.W. Scripps Company CEO Adam Symson after Nemmani correctly spelled the word 'koinonia' to win the 91st Scripps National Spelling Bee at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center May 31, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Winning word 2018: koinonia

Who won: Karthik Nemmani, a 14-year-old from McKinney, Texas

How to say it: “koy-no-nee-a”

What it means: an intimate religious experience or spiritual connection

The year 2019, crazily enough, didn’t really have a winning word in its history-making competition. A full eight students were declared co-winners after completely running out the list of challenging spelling bee words, without a single mistake. As disappointing as the 2020 cancellation is, you’ve gotta admit that 2019 would have been hard to follow up!

Can you spell the most misspelled words in every U.S. state? (Hint: you’ll probably find these a lot easier than these spelling bee words!)

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine.