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Like many other nonessential activities, the Scripps National Spelling Bee took a hiatus during World War II as energy and resources were directed toward the war effort. When the competition returned in 1946, LIFE dispatched a photographer to capture the contest. Though the photographs were never published, historical records state that the Bee that year was held in Des Moines, Iowa, and its champion was John McKinney, who correctly spelled the word “semaphore” (noun, French origin, definition: “a system of sounding messages by holding the arms or two flags or poles in certain positions according to an alphabetic code”).
This year’s bee will be held May 27 and 28. The words appear to have increased in difficulty over time — therapy, initials and dulcimer in the 1940s compared to appoggiatura, guetapens and feuilleton in the last decade — but the contestants’ expressions of puzzlement, exasperation and triumph are timeless.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.