From the staff

Column: National Spelling Bee isn't simple anymore, but it is still important

jmurawski@newsobserver.comJune 11, 2014 

A few days after my sixth-grade daughter, Suzanna, won the Wake County spelling bee in March, we received a surprise mailing from an obscure educational outfit whose name meant nothing to me.

Up to that point, my daughter had assumed that spelling “clarion” at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh advanced her to another spelling bee, maybe in a bigger auditorium, but with the perennial batch of fidgety kids who stumble over bookish words.

But the brochure that came in the mail, advertising training materials, evaporated any misconceptions about the Scripps National Spelling Bee. This was an invitation to the exclusive guild of competitive spelling, a high-performance subculture of private tutors, proprietary training aids and years of preparation for the world series of letter sequencing.

The national bee, televised in prime time on ESPN during the last week of May, is now equivalent to a major league sporting event, far removed from its hokey origins in county fairs and pioneer school houses.

The 12 prodigies who air-typed and finger-traced their way to the dramatic final rounds of the national spell-off in Washington beat out 11 million aspiring spellers from around the nation and from several territories and foreign countries.

It’s been many years since a kid could prepare for the national contest by reading adventure stories and Reader’s Digest. Examples from this year’s finals will leave no doubt: encaenia, thymelici, sdrucciola, augenphilologie, skandhas.

Sitting in the ESPN audience, the mom of a Minnesota seventh-grader (a kid who speaks fluent French and intermediate Finnish) confessed to me she hired a coach for her polyglot son because neither she nor her husband could pronounce the practice words. The boy didn’t get to the finals.

By the end of the first cutoff, the number of spellers was trimmed from 281 to 46. Computer quizzes doomed most of the aspirants ages 8 to 15 who came to match their word-hoard against Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.

Belief in spelling

So no one should be surprised that of the 14 participants from North Carolina, none advanced higher than 47th place in the competition, the end of the line for my daughter, as well.

Spelling as a manual skill is becoming obsolescent, thanks to spellcheck and predictive typing. But the belief in correct spelling – a cultural concept invented by grammarians and printers – is as fervent as ever. The spelling bee elevates orthography to a supreme test of personal perseverance and intellectual dexterity.

ESPN’s primetime coverage entails 11 cameras and a crew of about 40 people – more resources than the sports channel dedicates to covering an NCAA basketball game. More than 200 journalists covered the event this year, nearly one for each speller, and the corridor of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center became a makeshift television interview zone for scores of youngsters.

That kind of exposure creates a demand for Michelle Horton, head spelling coach for Hexco Academic, the company that had mailed us the brochure advertising its training aids. Horton, of Melbourne, Fla., has coached three second-place finalists and most recently propelled her 13-year-old home-schooled daughter Mary to a fifth place finish in this year’s bee.

Striving for perfect spelling proficiency would set a parent back $3,000 for 16 hours of coaching by phone and about $1,000 in training materials, as coach Horton explained to me.

Spelling practice is absolutely essential and can seem like a tryout for the monastery. To wit: Mary Horton studied 7 hours a day last summer, and during the school year she reviewed vocabulary and word roots 20 to 25 hours a week, her mom said.

“She gave up everything but violin,” her mom beamed. “They just determine, ‘I’m not going to work on anything else; I’m going to focus on this.’ 

This year, facing a battery of TV cameras, Mary was stumped by the word “aetites” and was escorted off stage to the consolation couch. Mary claimed a $2,500 prize, but as an eighth-grader, she is aged out of the spelling bee circuit.

My 12-year-old daughter decided early on she had no intention of becoming a “no lifer” just to memorize esoteric words, so we committed to a half-hour each day to vocabulary building. We made rapid progress disassembling words and analyzing their constituent parts.

Phobias and philias

We studied lists of phobias, philias, phagias and manias. We learned there’s a word for just about everything and its opposite. And we made sure to memorize the term for bad spelling: cacography.

I couldn’t help thinking Suzanna was born a few decades too late for this game. In the early decades of the bee, she would almost certainly have qualified for the finals on the national stage.

Consider a few championship words from before the 1950s – fracas, knack, intelligible, therapy, initials – and you’ll instantly appreciate how far the spelling bee has evolved since 1925.

Back in 1980, when Jacques Bailly, the bee’s official pronouncer, won the national spell-a-thon (winning word: elucubrate), his prize was $1,000. (Bailly grew up to become a professor of Latin and Greek at Vermont University.)

The winnings today include a check for $30,000, a $2,500 savings bond and the brief but incandescent glow of celebrity.

Competing at the national level requires a sophisticated grasp of English word formation and the many linguistic tributaries that flow into our language.

To survey words is to inventory the cosmos itself, spanning geography, botany, theater, philosophy, agriculture, weaponry, cuisine, textiles, dog breeds and much more.

Throughout the competition, every participant is made to feel like a hero just for getting there. There’s a full calendar of social events and activities, and this year all 281 contestants received complimentary Microsoft Surface tablets.

In this dictionary dreamland, TV glory is not restricted to the square-jawed, the broad-shouldered and the fashionably attired. For one exuberant week, public acclaim is showered on strigine (owlish) logophiles (word lovers) who have scaled the peaks of linguistic agility.

That’s the bee’s incalculable contribution in a society that too often mocks the use of the “50-cent word” as a useless indulgence.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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