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May 21st, 2008

The National Spelling Bee

by Barbara Wallraff

Never mind the NBA Finals -- it’s almost time for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee! ESPN will broadcast the quarterfinals and semifinals live from Washington, D.C., on May 29 and 30. ABC will air the championship for two hours of prime time on May 30.

Although the word “National” is part of the name, 22 contestants are Canadian, and others are coming from as far away as Ghana, New Zealand and South Korea. The field is the largest ever -- 288 local spelling-bee winners, including the youngest ever, Sriram Hathwar, a 
second-grader from Painted Post, N.Y. He turned 8 last month.

I can’t be the only person who finds this whole phenomenon intimidating. I mean, “serrefine”? “Ursprache”? “Appoggiatura”? “Autochthonous”? Those are the past four years’ worth of words that clinched the championship for the young students who got them right. I could no more have spelled those out loud on demand than I can slam-dunk a basketball. If I hadn’t just looked them up, I couldn’t even have defined them: they mean, respectively, a small forceps used by surgeons; a proto-language, or the ancestor of another language; a kind of musical embellishment; and native.

In fact, the most recent year in which I could have given the winner a run for his or her money was 1999, when the winning word was “logorrhea” -- meaning “excessive use of words,” as the American Heritage Dictionary genteelly puts it. I would have gotten 1994’s “antediluvian” and 1993’s “kamikaze.” The further back in time you go, the easier the winning words get: 1984, “luge”; 1970, “croissant”; 1967, “chihuahua” (I’ll bet even Paris Hilton can spell that one); 1956, “condominium”; 1940, “therapy”; 1932, .” The word that won the first National Spelling Bee, in 1925, was “gladiolus” -- no pushover, but no “appoggiatura” either.

OK, so I’m not necessarily smarter than a fifth-grader. (I like to imagine, though, that I could trounce that 8-year-old.) I console myself with the thought that spelling obscure words correctly is more a stunt than an important skill. Then again, I’m sure the reason the winner has to know such weird words is that lots of kids today can spell all the normal ones.

That’s great news: Lots of kids can spell. Correctly spelling the words they actually use will pay off for them every day of their lives. Those of us who worry that education ain’t what it used to be and that today’s kids are being shortchanged should take heart from the National Spelling Bee.

P.S.: Speaking of weird words, are you wondering why a spelling competition is called a bee? This use of the word began in America in the 1700s. Most early bees were for the purpose of helping one another out -- as in a “quilting bee,” at which women made a quilt or quilts together, or an “apple bee,” at which everybody helped a neighbor pick his apples. The Oxford English Dictionary explains the name as an “allusion to the social character of the insect.” I guess that makes it a buzzword.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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