The Etymology of the Knaidel
Spelling out yesterday’s winning spelling bee word
Millions tuned in last night to watch the 11 finalists duke it out for the 86th annual Scripps Spelling Bee title. The winner, two-time third-place finisher Arvind Mahankali, walked away with $30,000–not an insignificant amount of lunch money to get beaten up for–after correctly spelling the word knaidel, from the Yiddish for a dumpling.
Perhaps, it was fitting that the word Mahankali needed to spell prior to knaidel was tokonoma–a Japanese word for a niche–because today Yiddishists and etymologists are kvelling over the public discovery of the winning word. We sought out Allan Metcalf, who brilliantly profiled master etymologist Gerald Cohen for Tablet earlier this month, for his thoughts on the knaidel.
The most interesting points Metcalf raised–after consulting the Jewish English Lexicon–was that there are six acceptable spellings for the word and the spelling of knaidel that Mahankali gave was not the lead one. He explained:
“Knaidel” is not the headword, “knaidle” is. The winning spelling is an alternate.
The intrigue doesn’t end there.
So that raises the question, would there be six possible correct answers at the spelling bee?
The answer is probably “no” because (I think) the bee uses Merriam-Webster dictionaries as its authority, and “knaidel” is the spelling in the M-W Unabridged. But that doesn’t mean the others are wrong, except possibly at a spelling bee.
No matter what, there may be nothing more cliché than a kid from Queens winning the national spelling bee with a Yiddish word for dumpling.
Nevertheless, congrats Arvind!