Winning words from the last 5 National Spelling Bees and their unexpected meanings

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The world opening up again in the post-pandemic spells out “g-o-o-d n-e-w-s” for the return of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

The annual spelling extravaganza was canceled last year due to COVID-19 – marking the first time the competition was called off since 1943 to 1945 because of World War II.

Zaila Avant-garde, 14, from Harvey, Louisiana reacts after spelling a word correctly during the finals of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee at Disney World Thursday, July 8, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
(AP Photo/John Raoux)

This year’s history-making return saw 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde as the first African American winner in the competition’s 96-year history when she spelled out the arguably complex word, “Murraya.” 

Here’s a look back at winning words, their definitions and the champions who spelled them.

2015: 

Words: Scherenschnitte, meaning “scissor cuts” or the art of paper cutting design. 

Nunatak means the summit of a mountain that jets out from a glacier. 

Winners: 2015’s Spelling Bee champions were Vanya Shivashankar, who spelled “Scherenschnitte” correctly, and Gokul Venkatachalam, who spelled “Nunatak.” 

2016: 

Words: Feldenkrais, from the “Feldenkrais Method,” is a type of exercise therapy said to connect between the brain and body to improve movement and mental state. 

Gesellschaft is a hypothetical society based on impersonal ties

Winners: Jairam Hathwar, who spelled Feldenkrais correctly and Nihar Saireddy Janga, who got Gesellschaft right. 

2017:

Words: Marocain, a heavy fabric made of silk, wool or both

Winner: Ananya Vinay

2018: 

Words: Koinonia means “Christian communion.” 

Winner: Karthik Nemmani

2019: 

Word: Auslaut, the last sound of a word or syllable 

Winner: Rishik Gandhasri

Word: Erysipelas, a common bacterial infection

Winner: Erin Howard 

Word: Bougainvillea, thorny vines, bushes and trees

Winner: Saketh Sundar

Word: Aiguillette, a cord with metal tips 

Winner: Shruthika Padhy

Word: Pendeloque, a diamond or other gem used as a pendant

Winner: Sohum Sukhatankar

Word: Palama, webbing on the feet of aquatic birds 

Winner: Abhijay Kodali

Word: Cernous, when a flower or bud droops downward 

Winner: Christopher Serrao

Word: Odylic, name given for hypothetical vital energy or life force in the mid-19th century 

Winner: Rohan Raja

2020: 

For the first time since World War II, the National Spelling Bee was canceled because of the pandemic. 

2021: 

Word: Murraya, a genus of flowering plants in the citrus family. 

Winner: Zaila Avant-garde 

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