Students face the spell master (or king bee), Clifton Neita, then managing editor of The Gleaner in the 1968 finals 

Prior to May 28, 1998, most Jamaicans - indeed, most people  the world - had never even heard the word CHIAROSCURIST before. However, it soon became etched in the minds of many after Jody-Anne Maxwell, then a 12-year-old student at Ardenne High School, spelled it correctly to win the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. In the process, she became - and remains - the only non-American to claim the trophy in the competition's history. What most Jamaicans probably don't know is that 1998 was only the second time Jamaica was entering the spelldown. The year before, our entrant Jason Edwards James, placed eighth.

Both Maxwell and James are only part of Jamaica's long spelling tradition. The first Gleaner/Children's Own Spelling Bee Competition was held from August 15-19, 1960 at the Myrtle Bank Hotel in Kingston. It was the brainchild of Theodore Sealy, then editor-in-chief of The Gleaner, who fashioned it after a similar competition held in Florida. Of course, the difference in word style and usage necessitated the formulation of a Jamaican spelling book. For that task, HP Jacobs, noted journalist and historian, and Cedric Lindo of the University of the West Indies were commissioned. Sealy was the competition judge and Clifton Neita, then managing editor, was the spell master or ‘king bee.’

The first winner of the competition was Beverley Betty, a student of St Hugh's High School. She took permanent possession of a sterling silver trophy for her efforts. Earning the trophy has been a motivating factor for hundreds of students over the 53-year history of the competition. Just as kissing the World Cup trophy is every footballer’s fantasy, grasping the all-island championship, symbolised by the silver cup, is the dream of every child entering the bee, from the class spelldowns to the national finals.

The organisers have fought to make the competition exciting for the champions and loyal followers. Within the first 20 years, prizes varied from cash to trips to Orlando, Trinidad and the Cayman Islands, cups from various sponsors, sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica Junior, among other books, pen sets and radios. Yet nothing can compare to the exposure that the children receive during their four-day stay in the capital for the finals of the competition. It is customary for the champions to pay courtesy calls on the Governor-General and Prime Minister and meet several dignitaries and opinion leaders in the course of the final week. Groups have visited the zoo, art galleries and have been exposed to press and radio media for varying reasons.


The 2012 parish champions

Gleaner/Children’s Own Spelling Bee Champions and Championship Words 1960-2013

  • 1960 Beverley Betty - St Hugh’s High: PLIABLE
  • 1961 Ian Alcock - St Aloysius Primary: ABROGATE
  • 1962 Angela HoChoy - Vaz Preparatory: CHASTE
  • 1963 Linvall Dalley - Cornwall College: 
  • 1964 Junior Henry - Sturge Town Primary: AGGRANDIZE
  • 1965 Amorelle Morrison - Manchester High: ARCHIPELAGO
  • 1966 Janice Henry - Vaz Preparatory: AGGLUTINATE
  • 1967 Michael Lyew - St Cecilia Preparatory: ALSATIAN
  • 1968 Clive Lai - St Cecilia Preparatory
  • 1969 Diedre Crooks - Vaz Preparatory: INSIDIOUS
  • 1970 Elizabeth McLaughlin - St Cecilia Preparatory: CONCUPISCENCE
  • 1971 Andrew Mais - Vaz Preparatory: YOWL
  • 1972 Yvette Lemonias - Corinaldi Ave Preparatory: HYDROPHOBIA
  • 1973 Jennifer Broderick - St Cecilia Preparatory: 
  • 1974 Carol Berry - St Cecilia Preparatory: CICATRIX
  • 1975 Kevin Chung - St Cecilia Preparatory: FICHU
  • 1976 Leighton Chin Yee - St Cecilia Preparatory: DOGGEREL
  • 1977 Daille Nation - Vaz Preparatory: ASTRAKHAN
  • 1978 Samantha Hill - Vaz Preparatory: ANDROCEPHALOUS
  • 1979 Melanie Smith - Vaz Preparatory
  • 1980 Michael Woon Choy - St Cecilia Preparatory: ERYSIPELAS
  • 1981 Kellie Magnus - Vaz Preparatory: 
  • 1982 Janet Buchanan - St Cecilia Preparatory: GENEALOGY
  • 1983 Tricia Richardson - St Cecilia Preparatory: MAUDLIN
  • 1984 Stephen Phillips - St Cecilia Preparatory: WISEACRE
  • 1985 Juanita West - Ritchies Primary: STREPTOCOCCI
  • 1986 Karla McNish - Ardenne High: DELIRIUM
  • 1987 Garfield Grandison - Ardenne High: GONORRHOEA
  • 1988 Rusanna Roberts - Ardenne High: VANILLIN
  • 1989 Ludlow Hoilett - Ardenne High: FUNAMBULIST
  • 1990 Janice Maxwell - Ardenne High: APPLIQUE
  • 1991 Suyen Gunter - Vaz Preparatory: OVOVIVIPAROUS
  • 1992 Renne Smith - Bethel All Age: FLABBERGASTED
  • 1993 Charles Deans - Ardenne High 
  • 1994 Shanna Ricketts - Ardenne High: ECHOLALIA
  • 1995 Orville Ramocan - Ardenne High: 
  • 1996 Jason James - Ardenne High: UGLI
  • 1997 Jody-Anne Maxwell - Ardenne High: PAROTITIS
  • 1998 Kathryn Lewis - Ardenne High: TSUNAMI
  • 1999 Romell Newby - Ardenne High
  • 2000 Rhea Brathwaite - Ardenne High: ACCOUTREMENT
  • 2001 Daniel Thomas - Ardenne High: DICHOTOMY
  • 2002 Alicia Forrest - Ardenne High: AMOEBOID
  • 2003 Trudy McLeary - Ardenne High: DROMOMANIA
  • 2004 Cornel Grey - Portmore Missionary Preparatory: GHOUL
  • 2005 Stacey-Ann Pearson - Ardenne High School: CYPRIPEDIUM
  • 2006 Rosanna Pike - Ardenne High School: SOLECISM
  • 2007 Regina Bish - Campion College: PASTICHE
  • 2008 Sade Dunbar - Immaculate Conception High School: FASCISM
  • 2009 Shari-Jo Miller - Bishop Gibson High School: APPOGGIATURA
  • 2010 Owayne Rodney - St Thomas Preparatory School: ESCHATOLOGY
  • 2011 Hanif Brown, Jr - Ardenne High School: ZEALOUS
  • 2012 Gifton Wright - Kingston College: LLANO
  • 2013 Christian Allen - Ardenne High: HIERURGY 
  • 2014 Tajaun Gibbison - Knox College: HYPOGEUSIA 
  • 2015 Sara-Beth McPherson - Holy Childhood: RURITANIAN
  • 2016 Chaunte Blackwood - Ardenne High: ARROYO
  • 2017 Deneiro Hines - Glenmuir High: EPANALEPSIS

Rev Glen Archer, who began coaching students for The Gleaner's Children's Own Spelling Bee Championship in 1986, has the distinction of producing 26 winners over the course of the competition's history.

Where did the term 'spelling bee' come from?

The word bee, as used in spelling bee, is one of those language puzzles that have never been satisfactorily accounted for. A fairly old and widely-used word, it refers to a community social gathering at which friends and neighbours 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. Those who used the word, including most early students of language, assumed that it was the same word as referred to the insect. They thought that this particular meaning had probably been inspired by the obvious similarity between these human gatherings and the industrious, social nature of a beehive.

But in recent years, scholars have rejected this explanation, suggesting instead that this bee is a completely different word. One possibility is that it comes from the Middle English word bene, which means a prayer or a favour (and is related to the more familiar word, boon). In England, a dialect form of this word, been or bean, referred to voluntary help given by neighbours toward the accomplishment of a particular task (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). Bee may simply be a shortened form of been, but no one is entirely certain.

Sources: A Dictionary of American English. Sir William A Craigie and James R. Hulbert, eds. University of Chicago Press, 1944. A Dictionary of Americanisms. Mitford M Matthews, ed. University of Chicago Press, 1951. The American Language. HL Mencken, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1938 (suppl.1, 1945: suppl. 11, 1948)