Saturday, June 2, 2007


Recently, we had the opportunity to watch the 70th Scripps National Spelling Bee on prime time TV, an unusual sporting event which ran overtime and displaced Grey's Anatomy. The spelling bee is a uniquely American concept which I can describe with some experience as the one-time 8th grade spelling champion at the Myra Bradwell School.

The competitors are all boys and girls between 9 and 14 years old, many of them home-schooled. Their teachers, of course, are highly motivated, as are their students. That's not an indictment of the public school system, of which I'm a product, but I'll leave it at that.

Spelling bees work only in English speaking countries. For example, in Spanish and most foreign languages the spelling of words is predictable and follows strict rules. English, however, borrows words from many languages, and the spellings of those words reflects the origins of the words. The contestants are allowed to ask various questions about the words such as their etymology (history of words), alternate pronunciations, and even to hear the word used in a sentence.

Between 1999 and 2006, five of the national champions were the children of Indian immigrants. One possible reason is that, in Indian households, several languages are spoken, and another is that the parents are, in most cases, highly educated academics or scientists who instill the love of knowledge in their children.

The contest is highly competitive because of the prizes. The winner this year (2007), 13 year old Evan O'Dorney, of Danville, California, won more than $45,000 in cash and prizes. He correctly spelled serrefine which isn't spelled the way it is pronounced. While spelling ability in itself will not guarantee future success, many of the past champions have gone on to be doctors, lawyers and academics. I know many people in those professions who cannot spell worth a darn, but are still successful--courtesy of Spell Check. In some cases, past champions leave the spelling championship off their resumes because of concern that a prospective employer will think they peaked at age 13. But they get lifetime bragging rights and can probably win a lot of bar bets.

Some of the past winning words include mneme, truttaceous, euonym, oneiric, loxocosm, appoggiatura, logorrhea, syllepsis and xanthosis. Although they are considered English words, I would challenge anyone to use those words in a sentence or write a poem using those words.

Here is my attempt to do so:

There once was a girl named Mimi,
Who correctly could spell mneme,
Truttaceous, Xanthosis,
Cretaceous and Syllepsis
But messed up on euonym-e.

Well, I'm just learning how to do this. Next time, I'll give you some more limericks.




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