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The 26 Hardest Winning Words from the National Spelling Bee

The Scripps National Spelling Bee has been a (mostly) 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 was canceled last year due to the pandemic—a Zoom spelling bee might rely a little too hard on the honor system for hard spelling bee words like these. That being said, 2021’s bee is on like Donkey Kong, and if you think you’ve seen hard spelling bee words already, then buckle in!

RELATED: 20 of the Hardest Words to Spell in the English Language

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: albumen

Year: 1928

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)

Sentence containing the word: “Well-beaten albumen is the key to impressive meringue.”

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

RELATED: 10 Unfortunate Typos You Won’t Believe Were Actually 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: asceticism

Year: 1929

How to say it: “uhsetuh-siz-uh m”

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

Sentence containing the word: “Priests practice asceticism in a display of worship.”

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

RELATED: Can You Name the U.S. State Without Its 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: soubrette

Year: 1953

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

Sentence containing the word: “Suzanne in Le Mariage de Figaro is possibly the most famous soubrette.”

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

RELATED: Word Puzzles That Will Stump You

Winning word: crustaceology

Year: 1955

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

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

Sentence containing the word: “I’m very interested in marine biology, specifically crustaceology.”

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

RELATED: Travelled vs. Traveled: Which Is Correct?

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

Winning word: interlocutory

Year: 1969

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

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

Sentence containing the word: “Rather than awaiting trial, consider an interlocutory appeal.”

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

RELATED: Here’s 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: shalloon

Year: 1971

How to say it: “sha-loon  

What it means: a type of twilled fabric

Sentence containing the word: “The material used to line clothing is more often than not shalloon.”

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

RELATED: These 10 Words 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: macerate

Year: 1972

How to say it: masuh-reyt”

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

Sentence containing the word: “The recipe calls for sugar and water to mix and macerate the strawberries.”

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

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: hydrophyte

Year: 1974

How to say it: hahy-druh-fahyt”

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

Sentence containing the word: “A few hydrophytes would really liven up the fish tank.”

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

RELATED: 70 Words (and Phrases) You’re Probably Using All 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: maculature

Year: 1979

How to say it: mac-yoo-luh-chur”

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

Sentence containing the word: “Any bookbinder worth their salt will know about maculatures!”

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

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: elegiacal

Year: 1988

How to say it: “el-i-jahyuh k-uh l”

What it means: sorrowful or lamenting

Sentence containing the word: “The movie score was rather elegiacal—I was sobbing the whole time!”

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

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: spoliator

Year: 1989

How to say it: spoh-lee-eyt-uhr”

What it means: someone who plunders or robs

Sentence containing the word: “The spoliator has made off with our spoils once again.”

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

RELATED: 85 Funny Words You Probably Don’t Know

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: lyceum

Year: 1992

How to say it: “lahy-seeuhm”

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

Sentence containing the word: “I just went to a poetry reading at that lyceum last week.”

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

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: antediluvian

Year: 1994

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

Sentence containing the word: “I enjoy having a door opened for me once in a while—consider me antediluvian!”

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

RELATED: Spelling and Grammar Rules No One Can Agree On

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

Winning word: succedaneum

Year: 2001

How to say it: “suhk-si-dey-nee-uh m”

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

Sentence containing the word: “Even though the man ordered roses for his wife, the florist decided the succedaneum of daisies would have to do.”

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

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

Winning word: pococurante

Year: 2003

How to say it: “poh-koh-kooran-tee”

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

Sentence containing the word: “If a young man grew up being yelled at all the time, it is quite expected for the man to have a pococurante demeanor toward people screaming.”

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

RELATED: This Spelling Test from 1974 Will Drive You Insane

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

Winning word: appoggiatura

Year: 2005

How to say it: uh-poj-uhtoo ruh”

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

Sentence containing the word: “An appoggiatura places emphasis on the grace note.”

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

RELATED: If You Can Answer These Mensa Quiz Questions, You’re Probably a Genius

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: stromuhr

Year: 2010

How to say it: straw-muhr”

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

Sentence containing the word: “This prognosis might require a stromuhr.”

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

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: guetapens

Year: 2012

How to say it: “get-uh-paw

What it means: a trap or a snare

Sentence containing the word: “The opposing team fell for our guetapens and it was all over.”

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

RELATED: 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: feuilleton + stichomythia

Year: 2014

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

Sentence containing the words: “I love the Times section for feuilleton”; “The stichomythia in Oedipus is unparalleled.”

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

RELATED: 18 Words for Things You Never Knew Had a Name

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: scherenschnitte + nunatak

Year: 2015

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

Sentence containing the words: “Patience, practice, and a steady hand are essential for this craft, as most scherenschnitte designs are extremely elaborate”; “At last we reached the top of the Crean Glacier, at a broad pass beside a striking 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

RELATED: 9 Spelling and Grammar Mistakes 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: feldenkrais + gesellschaft

Year: 2016

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

Sentence containing the words: “A little feldenkrais will have you fixed up in no time”; “It’s less a friendship and more so 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

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: marocain

Year: 2017

How to say it: “maruh-keyn”

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

Sentence containing the word: “It’s a dress made from the most beautiful marocain I’ve ever seen.”

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

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: koinonia

Year: 2018

How to say it: “koy-no-nee-a”

What it means: an intimate religious experience or spiritual connection

Sentence containing the word: “I’m going away next week on a little koinonia.”

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

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. Must’ve been a pretty sharp field with hard spelling bee words like “auslaut” and “erysipleas.”

RELATED: Can You Spell the Most Misspelled Words in America?

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com 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.