Spelling Bee Controversy Erupts Over Yiddish Translation

A spelling bee controversy has followed Arvind Mahankali’s big win last week in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and, while the 13-year-old winner got top honors for his ability to spell “knaidel,” not everyone agrees he was correct.

For the purposes of the spelling bee controversy, Mahankali was correct in as much as the spelling he chose was the same used in the Merriam-Webster dictionary that serves as a guideline for the competition.

Mahankali can certainly be assured of his spelling bee win on the word “knaidel,” but, after the confetti stopped falling, a discussion remained — did the Queens teen actually correctly spell the Yiddish word?

It depends on who you ask — and even if you didn’t ask, the spelling bee controversy is raging in some circles.

In New York, from which Mahankali hails, one authority on the matter favors a slight variant spelling. Jack Lebewohl, owner of the Second Avenue Deli, tells the New York Times that the Yiddish to English route is not necessarily a clear one:

“There’s no real spelling of the word, so who determines how a word is spelled?”

Others have said that the spelling can be standardized, but there seems to be little agreement on which standard should actually be the standard.

And, as the Daily Beast points out, this alone makes the choice of “knaidel” and its precipitation of the spelling bee controversy a considerable issue for future competitions:

“Which is why competition organizers should have thought twice about using Yiddish-derived words into high-stakes spelling competitions. Do you call an ineffectual, hapless person a schlemiel, a shlemel, a shlemyel, or a schlemeyel? Is that mass of cream cheese you put on a bagel a schemer or a shmeer? Is a thief a gonif, a goniff, or aganif? How about that thing Jews like to spin on Hanukkah (or Chanukkah or Chanukah)? It could be a draidel, a draidle, a dreidel, or a draydl.”

While the spelling bee controversy doesn’t affect Mahankali’s win, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research posits the correct spelling for the word is “kneydl.”