Do you remember how much fun spelling bees were when you were a child? Well, maybe not.
Either way, spelling bees are not just for children anymore; senior and adult spelling competitions now are widespread.
If you are 50 years or older you can enter this year's Senior Spelling Bee, May 7 at the Gilbert Lodge on North Long Lake Road.
The Senior Spelling Bee in the Traverse City area was initiated in 2005.
The Bee Master for the main event this year will again be Mike Sheehan, Webmaster of the Traverse City Senior Corner and co-host of "Words to the Wise," a program heard on WTCM, AM 580, from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesdays on "The Ron Jolly Show."
"Lori (Wells, director of the Traverse City Senior Center), Pat (Thompson, program director) and I cooked it up together," Sheehan said. "It's one more way of getting seniors engaged mentally ... it really becomes a nice community activity."
"It also parallels the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee that the kids go through every year," Sheehan said. "In fact, we charge a fee to the participants and that money goes to whatever young man or lady is going to Washington, D.C."
Spelling bees are thought to have originated in the United States around 1825. A major motivation for the contests was Noah Webster's spelling books. First published in 1786 and known typically as "The Blue-backed Speller," it is still available today.
Webster also was responsible for attempting to make English a more phonetic language. To name just a few of his changes, he dropped the "u" from words such as "humour" and "colour," dropped the "k" from words such as "publick" and "musick," changed "hypnotise" to "hypnotize," "centre" to "center" and changed "ce" in words like "defence" to "se."
Thank goodness he didn't succeed in changing "women" to "wimmen."
We fit everything we know about the universe into words made up from the 26 alphabet letters in our English language. That makes an enormous number of words we should learn to spell and not rely on our computer's spell check to do it for us. Some studies show that spell check has weakened the incentive to learn how to spell words correctly.
"A misconception that comes up all the time is that our language isn't as good as when I was a child," Sheehan said. "Our language is almost 1,600 years old and from the beginning one of the hallmarks has been change. If it doesn't change, it dies. The English language has gotten stronger rather than weaker."
Another key component in competitive spelling is the maintenance of cognitive function, which leads to a more satisfying and productive life.
The encouraging news coming from current research is that the dynamic nature of the brain, which allows for continued growth and learning throughout life, depends on exposure to stimulating environments. One study of older adults involved in creative endeavors showed improvement in memory and other health factors. Other studies have concluded that the brain needs care just like the body and creative involvement enhances the function of the aging brain.
"The spelling bee forces you to use your intellect," Sheehan said. "Whether it's a crossword puzzle, Sudoku or the spelling bee that adds a one-word dimension ... using your mind is a good thing."
The American Heritage Dictionary Unabridged, 4th Edition is the source for the Senior Spelling Bee. Each senior team will have three members. Teams can be formed among friends, but there's also a sign-up sheet at the Traverse City Senior Center that will be used to assign teams.
"To take away some of the anxiety, we have two practice sessions in advance," Sheehan said. "We simply do a round robin on words without anyone dropping out. It gets people used to the level of vocabulary that will be involved and gets them used to my cadence, because if they don't hear what I'm saying, that could be a deficit."
Comfort Keepers and the Traverse City Record-Eagle will sponsor this year's spelling bee, but the event couldn't be undertaken without the assistance of the Traverse City Area District Library, Snap Print and the Traverse City Senior Center. Prizes will be awarded to the top finishers. The entry fee is $5, which covers the official round and the two practice sessions.
"We wanted to sponsor the Senior Spelling Bee ... first of all because my wife was an English teacher," said Russ Knopp of Comfort Keepers. "It is such a fun event, watching the teams competing to win. Not only that, Mike Sheehan is extremely fun and entertaining."
"As more teams hear about it, the event continues to grow," Knopp said. "We're really proud to be a sponsor."
Here is a challenge to all service organizations, businesses, government agencies and the general public: Put together a team and join the fun. It's for a good cause.
For more information and to register, call the TC Senior Center at 922-4911, e-mail email@example.com or visit the Senior Corner at www.seniors.tcnet.org and click on local info at the bottom of the page.
Kathleen Bellaw Gest is a local freelance writer. For more about the Traverse City Senior Center, go to www.tcseniorcenter.com.