A long, long time ago - but much closer than a galaxy far, far away - Scripps distributed a booklet to spellers each year entitled Words of the Champions. This booklet was the predecessor to Paideia, which itself was the predecessor to both Spell It and each year's school list. At that time, Words of the Champions was composed of over 3200 words, roughly 1/6th of which were new words for that year. The booklet also included a list of National Spelling Bee winning words as well as words that knocked out hapless competitors the previous year. And for inspiration, pictures from the previous National Spelling Bee comprised the centerfold, including the requisite champion hoisting the trophy in victory. But aside from the fact that these words were divided into three groups according to difficulty and placed in alphabetical order, there was nothing else upon which to hang these words. There were no groupings according to subject or etymology. Spellers had to turn to Webster's Third to get any further information on these words. In the absence of anything better, this was just viewed as the status quo, and Words of the Champions persisted for much of the latter half of the 20th century.
In the early 1990s, though, Scripps began to consider an alternative: grouping words according to different subjects on each page. Along with this change, the booklet would be more colorful and fun, and more information about the top placing spellers from the previous year would be included. And in 1995, Words of the Champions was retired, and Paideia was born. It was an acknowledgment that spelling should not exclusively be about memorization - a long-standing criticism of the bee at that point. Subjects ranged all over the place, including musical instruments, birds, tools...even words associated with the concept of "hardness." To emphasize how books can be such a great source of words, some lists were composed of words from classic books like The Secret Garden and Treasure Island. And although not all subjects were ideal - the section on elements in the periodic table, for example, was a great idea, but included some awfully arcane words - Paideia as a whole was an improvement on Words of the Champions, and took the Scripps bee circuit in a promising and refreshing new direction. Despite the fact that Paideia has been replaced by Spell It since 2007, copies can still be found, and it is a good, easily digestible source of words to study.
Late last week, I was looking up the etymology of the word recalcitrant with one of my students. This was a fun find.
Some words tend to have straightforward definitions that are equally as straightforward when you consider the root words from which they sprang. Greek is rife with these kinds of words. Take one root, add a connecting "o" if you need to, add another root, add a suffix if you want, and voila! A new word. And use the meaning of the roots to come up with a good definition. A great example of this is the word heliotropism. This simply comes from two roots: helios, meaning "sun," and tropein, meaning "to turn." Then the noun ending -ism is appended. From here, it isn't hard to see that the word refers to plants that have a tendency to turn toward the sun. The sunflower is a great example of a plant that exhibits heliotropism.
Other words don't have such a direct relationship between their derivation and their definition. Take, for example, the word recalcitrant, which appears as a challenge word in the Latin section of Spell It. Recalcitrant means "obstinately defiant of authority or restraint." The word is also used to describe diseases that do not respond to otherwise effective treatment. Recalcitrant does come from the Latin root recalcitrare, meaning "to be stubbornly disobedient," but the root takes on a metaphorical meaning. The two key parts are the prefix re-, meaning "backward," and the root calx, meaning "heel." What does a heel have to do with being stubborn? Well, according to the Romans, a fair bit. You kick back at the authority figure who is asking you do to something you don't want to do...with your heel! (You can imagine stubborn young children doing this to their parents.) So from there, Romans took the two parts, put them together, and came up with the verb recalcitrare.
It's words like recalcitrant that can make etymology fun...and that can make definitions stick to the brain more effectively. See if other definitions you find have a similarly fun story behind them as you learn them.
1989 National Spelling Bee Champion. Spelling coach extraordinaire. Unofficial member of the grammar and spelling police, firm but kind department. Fluent in English and sarcasm.