National Spelling Bee: 275 students vie (vye? vigh?) to make semifinals
The Scripps National Spelling Bee, shown Wednesday on ESPN-3, is under way, with 275 grade-schoolers battling it out in preliminary rounds. By Thursday, just 50 will be be left spelling.
Could you spell succedaneum? Or autochthonous?
On Wednesday, 275 contestants are battling it out in the preliminary rounds, where their success in both written tests and oral competition will determine which 50 (at most) advance to the semifinals Thursday, and then to the finals Thursday evening.
Included in their ranks: one eight-year-old, two nine-year-olds, and 13 ten-year-olds (along with the much larger groups of older spellers, who must not have moved beyond eighth grade before Feb. 1). Some have come from as far away as Japan, Guam, New Zealand, and South Korea.
All have won both a school and a regional competition, and most have spent hours poring over words in â€śSpell It!,â€ť the booklet put out by Scripps and Merriam-Webster to help students study for spelling bees.
But apart from memorizing the nearly half-million words in Webster's Third New International Dictionary and its addenda, thereâ€™s no way for spellers to know what words theyâ€™ll be given, or even how those words will be selected.
â€śItâ€™s kind of like our secret sauce,â€ť says Lee Rose, a spokesperson for the E.W. Scripps Co., which has administered the bee â€“ the nationâ€™s longest-running educational promotion â€“ since 1925 (when the winning word was â€śgladiolusâ€ť). â€śItâ€™s part of the mystique of the bee.â€ť
What competitors do know is that the words will get progressively tougher. In Wednesdayâ€™s preliminary round, spellers continue in the rounds regardless of whether they misspell a word (and their accumulated scores determine who advances to the semi-finals), but by Thursdayâ€™s competition a single misspelled word means elimination.
By the time just two or three spellers are left onstage, the pronouncer can move to the 25-word â€śchampionshipâ€ť section of the word list, trying to stump spellers with some of the toughest words in the dictionary.
A look back at the beeâ€™s winning words shows how much tougher the competition has become over the years. In the 1920s and '30s, students were able to win by spelling words like â€śpromiscuous,â€ť â€śknack,â€ť and â€śinterning.â€ť The winning words in the past three years, meanwhile, were â€śguerdonâ€ť (meaning â€śrewardâ€ť), â€śLaodiceanâ€ť (lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics), and â€śstromuhr,â€ť (a rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of bloodflow through an artery).
â€śThe bee itself has just grown in its popularity since it started,â€ť says Ms. Rose, explaining some of the trend toward more sophisticated spellers. This year, the competition has moved to a new, larger hotel, and is selling tickets for the first time in the beeâ€™s history.
On Wednesday, spellers were sweating their way through the tough competition. For some of them, itâ€™s not the first time. Though heâ€™s just 11, Rahul Malayappan from Connecticut is competing for the fourth consecutive year â€“ one of three spellers back for a fourth round. A number of the top finishers from last year are back to try again, including two finalists â€“ Joanna Ye of Pennsylvania (who correctly spelled â€świckiupâ€ť in the first oral round) and Laura Newcombe of Ontario (who rattled off â€śequinoctialâ€ť). The girls tied for fifth place last year.
And, as always, the spellers seemed unfazed by words that would daunt most grammarians â€“ or newspaper reporters. Just 38 misspelled words during the first of two oral rounds, breezing through â€śsaxifrageâ€ť and â€śheresimachâ€ť (but getting tripped up, in one instance, by â€śibuprofenâ€ť).