8 of the Hardest Words in Scripps National Spelling Bee History

Tuesday, October 103 min read

Perhaps you won a blue ribbon in your grade-school spelling bee, but would you have been able to stand on the global spelling stage? Since 1925, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has invited some of the brightest young minds in the world to compete at its renowned event. The annual spelling bee has become something of a spectator sport as audiences watch the hopeful contestants parse out the most challenging words from the dictionary. The first Scripps winning word was “gladiolus” in 1925, and the 2023 winning word was “psammophile.”

Some easier (or at least more recognizable) winning words include “knack” (1932), “torsion” (1933), “therapy” (1940), “initials” (1941), and “croissant” (1970), but lately the words (selected by Scripps in partnership with Merriam-Webster) seem to be getting harder every year. The maximum participation level is eighth grade and age 15, but we’re willing to bet that many of the spelling bee words stump people of all ages. Here are some of the most difficult winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee.


Pronunciation: uh-pah-juh-TOOR-uh

Definition: (Noun) An embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a note of smaller size.

This 2005 winning term is considered tricky to spell because of its Italian origin. Appoggiatura translates literally to “support,” and in English, the Italian vowel sounds, double consonants, and classic “ia” diphthong (where the “i” is nearly silent) make it one of the most difficult winning words in Scripps history.


Pronunciation: kyahr-uh-SKYUR-ist

Definition: (Noun) An artist who specializes in chiaroscuro.

This 1998 winning word comes from “chiaroscuro,” a name for the artistic use of strong contrast between light and dark. It was derived from the Italian words chiaro (“clear, light”) and oscuro (“obscure, dark”). Again, the Italian origin presents spelling difficulties for a few reasons, including the “ch” at the beginning (pronounced with a “k” sound) and the “o” in the middle (pronounced as “uh”), which can cause spellers to use the wrong vowel.


Pronunciation: eh-ruh-SI-puh-luhs

Definition: (Noun) An acute febrile disease associated with intense edematous local inflammation of the skin and subcutaneous tissues caused by a hemolytic streptococcus.

Scripps is notorious in recent years for challenging spellers with words they would likely never have come across in their young lives. This bewildering medical term is derived from the Greek erythros (“red”) and pella (“skin”). According to an analysis by Babbel and Merriam-Webster, Latin words are the most likely to knock out spellers (27%), followed by Greek-derived words (21%).

“Erysipelas” is notable as one of eight winning terms of the 2019 spelling bee, when there was an eight-way tie. The other words were “auslaut,” “bougainvillea,” “aiguillette,” “pendeloque,” “palama,” “cernuous,” and “odylic.”


Pronunciation: get-uh-paw

Definition: (Noun) Ambush, snare, trap.

The 2012 winning word was “guetapens,” which is a French loanword from guet-apens, both meaning “ambush.” The winning speller immediately knew that the origin of this word is French, which gave them a phonetic hint as to the silent “s” at the end of the word.


Pronunciation: lay-ah-duh-SEE-uhn

Definition: (Adjective) Lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.

This biblical word comes directly from the Book of Revelation 3:15-16, in which the church of Laodicea (located in modern-day Turkey) is reprimanded for its lackadaisical devotion. By the mid-17th century, the word “Laodicean” was used to describe any halfhearted follower of religion, and, in more recent usages, politics. Then, in 2009, it became the Scripps winning word.


Pronunciation: muh-REE-yuh

Definition: (Noun) A genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees that have pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.

This name for a flowering citrus plant sounds a bit like the name “Maria.” It was coined in honor of Swedish botanist Johan A. Murray, and it was the winning word of the 2021 spelling bee.


Pronunciation: shear-en-SHNIT-eh

Definition: (Noun) The art of cutting paper into decorative designs.

This German word translates to “scissor cuts” and describes a paper-cutting craft. It was one of two winning words in 2016 (the other was “nunatak”), and knowing its German origin was likely the key to success during the spelling bee. There is no such thing as a silent “e” at the end of German words; it is pronounced as “eh.” Another important rule: What sounds like “sh” in English is spelled “sch” in German.


Pronunciation: OOR-shprah-khuh

Definition: (Noun) A parent language.
Another term of German origin, this 2006 winning word was derived from the word for “speech” (sprache). It refers to archaic, extinct languages that were reconstructed based on evidence of newer (related) languages, such as Germanic or Indo-European. A few German pronunciation tricks are at play here: The German “u” is often pronounced like the English “oo” in “boots,” the “ch” is pronounced with a “k” sound at the back of the throat (similar to the sound in the Scottish “loch”), and the “e” at the end is not silent.

Featured image credit: matimix/ iStock

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