Can You Spell These Tricky Words?


By: Elisabeth Henderson

6 Min Quiz

Image: drbimages / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Many children learn to spell by learning phonics, the sounds that letters make in different combinations. If you know phonics, you can sound out most words and spell them reliably well. However, this method doesn't work all the time. For one thing, there are multiple ways to spell the same sound, and it’s impossible to know which spelling is used for which sound unless you know the word by sight. 

Also, English is notorious for exceptions to the rule when it comes to spelling. Memorizing rules for spelling, like “I before E except after C,” is helpful ... except when it’s not, as in leisure. If English spelling seems to follow different rules, as if it’s composed of different languages, that’s because it is! English brings together words that originate from Greek, Latin, German and other languages with extremely different rules and sounds. 

Additionally, English spelling may seem strange because it is an ancient language. Scholars believe that early forms of English were being spoken beginning in the mid 5th century. Language evolves over time, both in pronunciation and in meaning. As it does, some spellings change and some original spellings remain. Spelling is actually more interesting than it seemed when we were forced to write words again and again until their image was stamped on our young brains. 

Do you have the knowledge to win this spelling bee? See if you can be the last one standing with this quiz! 

Is it possible to _____ a sitting president?

The word indict is one that you may be seeing mispelled a lot lately. It’s as often mispelled as it is misunderstood. As for the answer to the question, let’s leave that to the experts.


I had to retake third grade English because my spelling was ________.

It turns out the "I" before "E" except after "C" rule is deficient for the after "C" part as well. And, unlike the 75% correct rate that the “I" before "E” holds, the “after "C" part is less accurate. In fact, statistician Nathan Cunningham reports that it’s three times more likely to have the "I" before "E" after "C."


He paid with a $100 bill, but the cashier wouldn’t take it, since it was clearly _________.

There are many ways to detect a counterfeit $100 bill. You may be able to tell by the feel of the paper, the way borders look blurry, or ink that is not quite the right color. After 2009, $100 bills have a fresh new look, with many new security safeties built in.


What do you call something intentionally cruel?

The word vicious refers to something that is brutal or intentionally cruel. Viscous, on the other hand, refers to a thick, sticky consistency. You wouldn’t want to mix these two up in a history paper describing an assault on civilians.


Sometimes I go to the _______, just to remind myself that life is fleeting.

If it weren’t for spellcheck, would you ever get this one right? It just seems like there should be an "a" in there somewhere, right? Oxford Dictionaries mentions that a good way to remember this is to think of it in opposition to graveyard, which has two "a"s.


We went out of our way to drive across the _____.

The word dam, meaning a constructed blockade to keep back water, is often confused with the expletive, damn. You can remember that the one the that is spelled as​ it sounds, is the one you would write. Damn, which makes no sense spelling wise, is not really for writing; it’s for saying.


What could a shiny, sparkly object be described as?

This word scintillating is derived from the Latin for sparkly. It’s a strange word because it has extremely few related words in English (unlike many other words that originated from Latin).


What is something you can have without knowing you have it?

The essence of having privilege is having a right not granted to everyone. Because the advantages afforded by privilege are often unseen, especially to those who have them, privilege can be an elusive concept.


What is the act of soaking something in called?

The word absorption is tricky because it’s not spelled like the act of absorbing that it describes. Absorption can describe the process of absorbing or being absorbed, or it can signify the state of being absorbed in something.


What is a device for remembering?

A mnemonic is a device or system for remembering. Common mnemonics these days are catchy songs for remembering lists or acronyms that spell out a memorable word. It used to be more common, though, to use more complex mnemonics, such as imagining parts of a speech or story to be areas inside a house.


She was _______ unaware that her teeth were full of poppyseeds during her presentation.

Many students are wholly unaware of​ how to spell wholly, but that’s OK because they would never use it in a sentence. If you do use it in sentences though, misspelling it causes some humorous gaffes.


It doesn’t make a difference how often you check your ______.

Yet another word that doesn’t work with the old elementary jingle. Weight places the "e" before the "i," after "w." Most of us probably get this word correct most of the time because it’s so common, ​our brains have it memorized by sight.


We live at the end of the _______.

The bizarre word cul-de-sac, which is most commonly used to describe a dead-end street that forms a half-circle, comes from the French. It literally means the bottom of a sack, which, if you look from a bird’s eye view, is pretty much what it looks like.


If you have a good sense of beat, what do you have?

This is one of those pesky words that can kick you out of the spelling bee. Where does the "Y" go? The word comes from the Germanic word rhein, meaning to flow. It originally described rhymed verse.


He changed his personality like a _________.

The word chameleon has an "H" because it’s from the Greek khamei (on the ground) + leon (lion). Maybe Greek lions look different from American chameleons.


She wasn’t popular in school because the kids said she was ____.

Weird is another of those weird words that does not follow the “I" before "E" except​ after "C” rule. While this rule seems to be just telling us lies, it is actually true 75% of the time.


What is a word for a brutal slaughter?

A massacre is a brutal slaughter that generally refers to people. The term applies to vastly different numbers of deaths. For instance, in the Hafia massacre in Palestine, 21 people were killed, while in the massacre at Jeju Island up to 60,000 people lost their lives.


She ______ illness in order to stay home from school.

The word feign derives from its Latin root fingere, meaning to mold or contrive. Feign still holds the meaning of contrive, or pretend, but that doesn’t explain why it’s spelled like this.


What is the form of parking dreaded by driving novices?

The spelling for parallel makes sense when you look at where it comes from. It originates with the Greek combination para (beside) + allelois (each other). Para can also mean beyond, as in paranormal, which doesn’t mean not normal, but beyond normal.


The family _____ had been going on for 20 years but no one could remember how it started.

The word feud means a fight or enduring hostility. It may come from a Germanic word for a ​foe. Some famous feuds include the hostility between Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the Montagues and Capulets in "Romeo and Juliet."


It just isn’t _____ to buy everything in bulk.

Feasible means capable of being done, or doable. It comes from the French word for “to do,” faire. Faire conjugates to fais, which looks a lot like the word feasible. But it doesn’t explain the ea.


After a week of shoveling manure, I had to see my ______.

Masseuse, as you may guess, is a French word. It comes from the word masser, meaning to massage. A masseuse only refers to a woman, while masseur refers to a man who rubs you down with oils. Don’t confuse them!


What is a natural disguise?

Camouflage occurs naturally among animals and insects. Butterflies have eyes on their backs and lions blend in with the dry grasses. The military began experimenting with camouflage in 1940.


Contrary to most people, caffeine has the ______ of making me sleepy.

The word effect has the effect of causing students everywhere to misspell it. It’s definitely hard to remember which is which, affect or effect. One rule of thumb is that effect is a noun, while affect is a verb (usually).


What is a term for something that goes against religion?

The word sacrilegious is not spelled the same way as “religion,” as one might think it would be, since the common meaning of the word is going against religious practices. The word comes from the Latin roots sac (holy and legere) to take possession of holy things​ or stealing holy things.


What is a fancy meal?

A nice meal is often referred to as gourmet. The word comes from the French, gourmand, which refers to a person who is a specialist in the art of eating and drinking. A gourmand was originally a wine taster.


What is a common bane of world travelers?

Diarrhea is not something you want to have or spell in public. If only a spell checker would just fix it before you even noticed. The word originates from the Greek dia (through) and rhein (flow.) Finding the origin of the problem is a different issue.


Where is there an abundance of cacti and a lack of water?

If you write in your report that you went to the Gobi Dessert, your teacher will really wonder about your taste. Deserts don’t have to be covered in sand, contrary to common perception. They are defined by the low amounts of annual rainfall, rather than the ground cover.


What do you call a cookie in England?

If you ask for a biscuit in England, you’re likely to get a cookie. The strange spelling comes from the French origin of the word. The cui combination is common in French, though uncommon in English.


She _____ packed her tights instead of her shirt and spent the day wearing pants on her arms.

Accidentally is not a word you get right by accident. You have to remember this one. You have to write it 100 times on the chalkboard to make it sink down to your fingers gripping the chalk. No one says “ax-i-dent-a-ly.”


______ may seem like it should be spring, but it’s still the dead of winter.

Perhaps February is the cruelest month. Winter has been going strong for months and it’s not slowing down. Also, why the "r"? Well, it comes from a Roman festival, Februa, where people were purified through washing.


What’s the feeling you get when school is out for summer?

The beginning of summer can bring on euphoria. Similarly, jumping into cold, clear spring water on a hot day can bring about this intense feeling of well being. Eu comes from the Greek for good or well and phoria is from pherein, to bear.


What is a quick way to clean the floors?

The vacuum was hailed as a time-saving lifesaver for housewives. The word vacuum comes from the Latin vacuus, empty. How many housewives looked to the vacuum for salvation, only to realize they were living in a vacuum?


What is Alfred Nobel famous for inventing?

The trade name Dynamite comes from the Greek word from which “dynamic” and “dynamism” are derived. It means “power.” Alfred Nobel made his explosive discovery in 1867.


What’s the name for that feeling when you are out of you’re mind with happiness?

Though the word ecstatic now usually means being taken over with intense positive emotions, it used to refer to a range of emotions. That’s because the word originally came from the Greek eckstatikos, meaning “unstable,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. The experience of ecstasy was historically related to a mystical experience that was out of your control.


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