Friday, June 1, 2007

National Spelling Bee 2007 - or - Can You Outspell a Middle Schooler?

The vast majority of adult Americans would answer a resounding "No!" to the title question, if the middle schooler is one of the competitors at the annual National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

This year's just-completed bee took place on May 30 and 31. As a lifelong fan of the event since I tried to qualify for it in 1967 and 1968, I followed Wednesday's "action" on the National Spelling Bee website and ESPN and ABC's welcomed television coverage on Thursday.

The profile of the National Spelling Bee has increased over the last several years. For a long time it was held in near secrecy, with the winning speller and his or her magic word gaining publicity only in a brief newswire story in your local paper.

For at least the last decade, ESPN has brought the bee to a wider audience with their televised coverage of the last day of competition. Until just a few years ago, all this took place in the still relative obscurity of midweek and midafternoon. For the last four years (perhaps in the wake of the wonderful docmentary "Spellbound" about the 1999 bee), ESPN's parent, ABC has moved the final round to the evening and televised it in primetime, complete with Olympics-style profiles of the spellers and their families. This year the coverage added "sideline reporter", ESPN heavyweight Stuart Scott, who interviewed stumped spellers outside the hall, and a "studio show" of sorts, with sports talkers Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic ("Mike and Mike") doing analysis and interviews, but mostly telling jokes, given that they know very little about spelling.

The young spellers have always inspired me with their poise and courage, but in the glare of primetime network TV, the amaze me. This year's kids shone throughout both the afternoon and evening sessions. In the afternoon, one girl dealt with the judge's mishearing her correct spelling of burelage and an agonizing 10-minute delay while they determined that, yes, she had spelled the word correctly. She finished tied for 8th place on the German-derived word urgrund after adding an extra "t" at the end.

One of the pre-bee favorites, a five-time competitor, went out early on the relatively easy clevis, second-guessing himself onstage and spelling "clevice" (confusing with "crevice", I guess). He admitted his screwup to sideline reporter Scott, although his coach/mother did file a protest (which was denied) that the word had been mispronounced.

Along with the poise, skill and courage, the spellers show remarkable senses of humor, both in quips "Is that really English?" and in facial expressions (wide-eyed shock at the word being asked, and again open-eyed amazement when their spelling is correct.) You end up rooting for every speller to get every word correct.

The eventual winner, Evan O'Dorney of Danvile, CA, displayed an amazing range of spelling knowledge, just in the final seven rounds. By contrast, I, perhaps the premier adult speller in my hometown of Baton Rouge, LA (I have no scientific evidence, but I do have 1st place finishes in seven adult or adult/student spelling bees in town), spelled correctly only 3 of 31 words given during Rounds 7 thru 11 (my DVR cut off promptly at 9 p.m. and I missed seeing the last two rounds.) Evan spelled rascacio (a scorpionfish from Spanish/Portugese), schuhplattler (from German - I couldn't remember how to spell "shoe" in German having completed my study of the language a mere 33 years ago), laquear (Latin-origin; ceiling decorations in a grotto), Zoilus (from a Greek proper noun), pappardelle (from Italian, a type of pasta--I got this one!); yosenabe (Japanese soup), and the winning word serrefine (from Latin, I think, a surgical instrument).

Pappardelle was the only word out of 31 that I confidently spelled right. I also got genizah (from Hebrew), and grognard (from French), each partly by luck. On helzel (from Yiddish) and helodes (from Greek meaning swampy), I had the correct spelling at first, but changed to incorrect ones before they showed the word.
The young spellers missed such relatively impossible words as bouleuterion (from Greek), aniseikonia (again from Greek), cyanophycean (Greek and Latin), and oberek (from Polish). I butchered cilice (a haircloth) as "scyllus". Two sharp spellers conquered randkluft (the middle "d" sounds like a "t" based on German origin) and epaulement (from French - I missed the second "e"). Webster's Unabridged Dictionary supplies the words for the National Spelling Bee, leaving the students a lot of ground to cover.

From the afternoon round I learned how to pronounce retiarius (the "ti" takes on almost a "cee" sound). I've known and played retiarii (the plural) in Scrabble since I learned it at the National Scrabble Championship in 2002. Watching the National Spelling Bee doesn't help my Scrabble game much (most of the words are too obscure even for the Scrabble dictionary, or just too long for the board), but it does give me hope for the future knowing that these dedicated, talented and poised children will lead American society (or wherever--competitors from English-speaking countries around the world participated) when I'm old(er) and an even worse speller (relatively speaking) than I am now.


Shelly said...

Hey dude,well i just wanted to say hi and thats great how you get so "into" sports, very cool!The names Shelly btw,ok well i will catcha l8r,byeee <33Shelly

dadlak said...

Thanks for the comment, Shelley. I'm glad you enjoy the site. I'm trying to improve my blogging skills and will be adding more links and features, so please keep reading.

dadlak said...

Shelly, If you like sports blogs, be sure to check out some from My Favorite Blogs list. Both "between-the lines" and "Awful Announcing" are fun.

dadlak said...

One more--between-the lines is called "Sports Idiocy" on my list

"Elizabliss" said...


I always thought that was some kind of angel.... um, wrong spelling, huh? Seraphim

You can see the ending of the Bee, here:

dadlak said...


Thanks for the comment and for the link to the end of the bee. I'm not that competent at You Tube. Sorry it took me so long to find your comment.