Winning words: “Feldenkrais” and “Gesellschaft”

For the third consecutive year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee  crowned co-champions. This year, Jairam Jagadeesh Hathwar correctly spelled Feldenkrais, sharing the top orthographical prize with Nihar Saireddy Janga, who spelled Gesellschaft. Where do these words come from – and what do they mean, anyways?


Feldenkrais is a trademarked name “for a system of aided body movements intended to increase bodily awareness and ease tension,” as Merriam-Webster, the official dictionary of the bee, explains it. This form of somatic education takes its name from Moshé Pinchas Feldenkrais, an Israeli scientist born in what is now the Ukraine, who designed and founded the Feldenkrais Method.


First theorized by German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, Gesellschaft is “a rationally developed mechanistic type of social relationship characterized by impersonally contracted associations between persons,” according to Merriam-Webster.  Gesellschaft characterizes the more modern, impersonal, and institutional relationships of modern society, compared to the more personal, traditional, and rural ones of Gemeinschaft.

Literally translated as “companionship” but used in the sense of “society,” Gesellschaft joins the German geselle, a “companion,” “associate,” or “fellow (guildsman),” with the noun-forming suffix –schaft, related to English’s own -ship, as in, well, companionship. The suffix, at root, means “state” or “condition,” ultimately cognate to the word shape.

To ace the shape of these words, Hathwar and Janga no doubt mastered the orthographical equivalent of Feldenkrais.

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scherenschnitte & nunatak

For the second year in a row, co-champions won the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee: Vanya Shivashankar landed scherenschnitte and Gokul Venkatachalam stuck nunatak.  If etymology was ever useful, it’s certainly in spelling bees. Let’s have a quick look at origin of the winning words.


A gorgeous scherenschnitte by Esther Gerber. Image from

For this word, I turned to Merriam-Webster (whose own Peter Sokolowski offered superb live-tweeting of the bee) online. According to Merriam-Wesbter, scherenschnitte is the “the art of cutting paper into decorative designs,” and, as you might have guessed, is from the German. It literally means “scissors cut.” The online entry continues:

German, plural of scherenschnitt, literally, scissors cut, from scheren, plural of schere scissors (from Middle High German schære, plural, from Old High German skār) + schnitt cut, from Middle High German snit, from Old High German; akin to Old English snid cut, from the Germanic root of snīthan to cut

In the first part of the word, you might recognize a cognate, the English shear. This historical linguistics have cut all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European *(s)ker-, a hugely prolific root meaning “to cut.” Sharesharp, shore? That’s just the beginning. In the second part of the word, I’ll point you to any you know who goes by Schneider, a “tailor” (think, “cutter”) in German.


Atanasoff Nunatak in Antarctica. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nunatak comes from the Greenlandic, an Eskimo language spoken in Greenland. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it joins nuna, “land,” and tak, “thing pertaining to,” yielding “an isolated piece of rock projecting above the surface of inland ice.” Also offering excellent live-tweeting of the event, Ben Zimmer of offers “a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice.” Words depend so much on context, no?

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