Eponyms have always spelled trouble for spelling bee participants everywhere. The definition of an eponym is a word based on a proper name, often a person’s name or a place name. Because these words come from names, and names have no set rules or patterns that govern their spelling, spellers are often vexed when they receive an eponym on stage. Often times, eponymous words are near impossible to figure out if a speller hasn’t heard the word or the name it stems from before; they’re tricky and unpredictable.
In the 2017 SCRIPPS National Spelling Bee finals, a total of 25 eponymous words were given, making up 11.8% of all words given in the finals. Eponyms were the third most commonly used etymology in the bee as well, topped only by Latin and Greek root-based words and French. Of the 25 eponyms, 11 came from geographical names, 5 came from literary or mythological names, and 9 came from the names of people. As spellers evolve and improve to conquer the words asked in the SCRIPPS National Bee, the bee itself must also change. In the past five years, the percentage of eponyms appearing in the SCRIPPS finals has risen. In 2013, 8.5% of finals words were eponymous. In 2014, the number sunk to 6.1%, and then steadily rose over the next three years. All evidence suggests that this trend will continue, and spellers will be facing the challenge of more and more eponyms in the national bee.
I consider eponyms to be grouped into three basic categories - geographical names, literary names, and people names. Within these three categories, there are also certain types of words that tend to be eponymous. For example, plant genre tend to come from the names of the botanists who discovered them, and minerals are often named after the geologists associated with them. These kinds of words have been scarce in the national bee until recent years, but with the growing skill of spellers overall and the increase in available resources available, SCRIPPS has been forced to resort to these obscure and hard-to-spell words.
Geographical eponyms made up approximately 6% of words asked in finals. Of the 11 that were asked, only 3 were missed. The origins of these words ranged anywhere from a commune in Switzerland (sbrinz) to a coast in southeast India (coromandel). Rarely are the origins of geographical eponyms well-known locations. Some eponyms abide by the rules of their location’s language; take, for example, aubusson, a type of rug named after a small town in central France. It stays relatively true to classic French spelling patterns, while on the other hand, corriedale, a breed of sheep named after a ranch in New Zealand, gives the spellers absolutely no leads as to how to spell its beginning. In my opinion, geographical eponyms are the most difficult to study because there are no specific types of words based on definition that tend to have geographically eponymous origins, making them difficult to find and study in bulk. Make note of geographical names in your lists and study materials when you come across them!
Literary eponyms made up 2.4% of the words asked in finals, and only 1 of the 5 asked was missed. This was the controversial word struldbrug, an oddly specific term referring to a race of immortals in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels. I noticed in my investigation of the word that quite a few interesting eponyms came from names in the novel: Lilliputian, splacknuck, and houyhnhnm, to name a few. The words Polypheme and Sinon, given in round 5, came from Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. When you are studying, watch out for words with their origins in classical literature and mythology; SCRIPPS loves to pick mythological adjectives and eponyms. Also, pay attention to the definitions of literary eponyms, as they often attributive and take on meanings based off of the traits of their namesake character or fictional location (yes, there are literary geographical eponyms - Xanadu, for example!), so they make for great vocabulary words.
Eponyms derived from the names of people made up 4.3% of words asked in finals. Of all the types of eponyms, these were the most lethal. 4 of the 9 of these eponyms were misspelled on the national stage. One example of this was the tough mineral name saussurite, derived from the name of Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss geologist and physicist. Another was the plant name ehretia, from the name of Georg D. Ehret, a German botanical illustrator. Words like these can also be difficult to compile because they can come from the names of so many different types of scientists - botanists, chemists, physicists, physiologists, physicians, inventors. I ran some advanced searches in Merriam-Webster’s Online Unabridged dictionary in order to see just how many of these eponyms were out there. ‘Botanist’ in the etymology found 360 terms, ‘chemist’ found 327, ‘physician’ found 337, and ‘inventor’ came up with 173. The good thing is, certain categories of words come from the names of each type of scientist; For example, minerals are often from geologist or naturalist names, plant genre are from botanist names, many bacteria and disease names come from physician names. Pay special attention in your studies to these categories that are often eponymous - especially plants and minerals!
So, to counter the rising trend of eponyms, take a little time to investigate these difficult words and learn them. Compile lists of words you find in studies, and use Merriam-Webster’s Online Unabridged dictionary’s advanced search function to find eponyms. These words are difficult, unpredictable, and numerous. In order to prepare yourself for getting a crazy eponym on stage, which is likely to happen in the 2018 bee season, you have to think ahead and study hard!