Origin of the word "bee" as in spelling, quilting, etc...?

So my buds and I were watching the National Geography Bee on PBS last weekend (yep, we’re
cool). We got to wondering how the word “bee” came to be synonymous with “competition.” Any guesses? Definitive answers?

Found this at Websters… Definition 3.

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Dennis Matheson — tanstaafl@earthlink.net
Hike, Dive, Ski, Climb — home.earthlink.net/~tanstaafl

This is one of those “nobody really knows, but here’s a guess” phrases. tanstaafl gives one of the guesses I’ve seen (BTW - “bene” can be translated as “prayer” or “favor”, the latter probably works best here). Another guess is that the word is taken from “bee”, the insect, and refers to the entire community working together for a common goal. Under this explanation, I guess we could just as well have a “national spelling ant”. FYI - the first written use of “bee” in this sense was “spinning bee” in 1769.

The overwhelming majority of people have more than the average (mean) number of legs. – E. Grebenik

William and Mary Morris, in their Dictionary of Words and Phrases side with the insect origin:

Apparently the busyness of the ordinary honey bee as he works cooperatively with his fellow bees to fill the community hive was the inspiration for such phrases as sewing bee, husking bee, spelling bee and raising bee. This sort of social gathering where all work for a common, and often charitable, purpose is nothing new. They were well known to the yeomanry of England during the Middle Ages, but the name bee seems to have been an American invention. …

During the rough-and-ready days when our Western frontier was being opened, the word bee was used in several less socially commendable combinations. Thus one might have read in Sam Clemens’ Virginia Ciy Enterprise or Bret Harte’s Overland Monthly account of such community activities as lynching bees, shooting bees, hanging bees, and even, for variety, rattlesnake bees.

Lynching bees? Geez, not a pretty thought…


Indeed. I don’t see any reason why one would lynch a bee, or shoot or hang her. After all, they’re just poor, innocent creatures…


Holger said:

Now, Hornets… that’s another story…

Ranger Jeff
The Idol of American Youth

Always drink* upstream * from the herd.