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The Etymology of the Knaidel

Spelling out yesterday’s winning spelling bee word

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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!

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Congress for Jewish Culture says:

And for more on the tsimes over the knaidel, see our blog :-)

Michael Stein says:

Why wouldn’t the dictionary use Kneydel, the YIVO-accepted transliteration?

Jonathan Affleck says:

I have seen knedle on menus at Pennsylvanian Dutch restaurants.

German immigrants to the British N. American colonies brought knedle (sing. knedl) to American cuisine long before there was any significant Yiddish Jewish immigration to the USA.

In any case knedle/knedlech (a Franconian plural — as well as Yiddish — if I am not mistaken) are common from the Alps through Central Europe to Eastern Europe. Just browse through the links from

On the whole the Yiddish variant is one of the more boring versions of this food and unique only by the use of matzoh meal.

In any case none of the various spellings of this food seems to have been as fully naturalized as vichyssoise, which has a commonly accepted American mispronunciation of the originally French world.

Should the unsettled spellings of foods from various world cuisines really be the deciding words of the US national spelling bee?


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The Etymology of the Knaidel

Spelling out yesterday’s winning spelling bee word

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