SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: From the ethereal to the ephemeral in a mere seven days.


In last week’s installment, I spoke of reconnecting with Ben, an old friend. In yet another of life’s transitions, I’ve resumed public tippling and our trip to Bountiful (saloons) yielded the word “ethereal” as meat for my writing.

It turns out, I struck a nerve, though not in the intended target. Ethereal happens to be a word seared into the psyche of another friend of more recent acquaintance, who picks up the story here.

He may or may not be referring to himself …

It seems this friend was a precocious sort who nearly almost well-nigh virtually and approximately earned a berth in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, circa eons ago. And “ethereal” most definitely came into play to thwart the friend’s ambition.

Now, back then, the national winner might prevail by spelling, oh, a word you’ve read here on this blog, so the degree of difficulty did not approach that of today’s championships. Kind of like the NBA.

As the regional field was winnowed to four, my friend tells me that visions of D.C. were twirling around the contestants. Then came today’s Excellent New Word.

The announcer called out “ephemeral.”

Piece of cake, thought our contestant. Spell it and watch the others fall. But remember, the competition was down to the last four. This might be the final round.

Being one of wide vocabulary, our aspirant hesitated and juggled a few options. “There IS this word ‘ethereal’ that a future sesquipedalian will use to troll a future bureaucrat,” mused our combatant, somehow peering into the far future of June 2017, the time of flying cars, celebrity presidents, and unqualified public housing directors.

“E-P-H-E-M-E-R … … E-A-L.” Thank you for playing.
[ih-fem-er-uh l]

1. lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory:
the ephemeral joys of childhood.

2. lasting but one day:
an ephemeral flower.

3. anything short-lived, as certain insects.

Thank you, Noah Webster.

Why is it a spelling “bee” and not a spelling “scrum” or “ordeal”?

The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is one of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for. A fairly old and widely-used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbors join together in a single activity (sewing, quilting, barn raising, etc.) usually to help one person or family.

The earliest known example in print is a spinning bee, in 1769. Other early occurrences are husking bee (1816), apple bee (1827), and logging bee (1836). Spelling bee is apparently an American term. It first appeared in print in 1875, but it seems certain that the word was used orally for several years before that.

And what of the origins of the Scripps National Spelling Bee? They’re closer than you might think.

Who’s based in Kentucky and started the National Spelling Bee? This newspaper

Almost 100 years ago, before computers or spell check, a Kentucky institution thought kids should be more excited about spelling — so it started the contest that has become the long-running National Spelling Bee.

That institution was the Courier-Journal.

Playwright Tony Kushner provides a sentence for the word ephemeral.

“So I think I’ll say the obvious thing: theater is ephemeral. When a production is done, it’s gone forever. You can take pictures of it. You can make a film of it. But it’s not the production. It’s not the same thing.”

Though not to neglect ephemereal:

Soon we’ll be looking back on the Gahan Era as an ephemereal interlude in the city’s long history.