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.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Miles Shebar from New York City, reacts after spelling his word correctly in the round three of the National Spelling Bee, on June 1, in National Harbor, Md.

Could you spell succedaneum? Or autochthonous?

This week is the Scripps National Spelling Bee – otherwise known as the time of year when ESPN viewers ogle in awe at the orthographic capabilities of grade-schoolers.

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 “Spell It!,” 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, there’s no way for spellers to know what words they’ll be given, or even how those words will be selected.

“It’s kind of like our secret sauce,” says Lee Rose, a spokesperson for the E.W. Scripps Co., which has administered the bee – the nation’s longest-running educational promotion – since 1925 (when the winning word was “gladiolus”). “It’s part of the mystique of the bee.”

What competitors do know is that the words will get progressively tougher. In Wednesday’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 Thursday’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 “championship” section of the word list, trying to stump spellers with some of the toughest words in the dictionary.

A look back at the bee’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 “promiscuous,” “knack,” and “interning.” The winning words in the past three years, meanwhile, were “guerdon” (meaning “reward”), “Laodicean” (lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics), and “stromuhr,” (a rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of bloodflow through an artery).

“The bee itself has just grown in its popularity since it started,” 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 bee’s history.

On Wednesday, spellers were sweating their way through the tough competition. For some of them, it’s not the first time. Though he’s just 11, Rahul Malayappan from Connecticut is competing for the fourth consecutive year – 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 – Joanna Ye of Pennsylvania (who correctly spelled “wickiup” in the first oral round) and Laura Newcombe of Ontario (who rattled off “equinoctial”). The girls tied for fifth place last year.

And, as always, the spellers seemed unfazed by words that would daunt most grammarians – or newspaper reporters. Just 38 misspelled words during the first of two oral rounds, breezing through “saxifrage” and “heresimach” (but getting tripped up, in one instance, by “ibuprofen”).

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