Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2010 Spelling Bee: Three Cheers for Anamika!

At the end of the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio stood alone as the champion. Anamika, who tied for fifth in last year's National Bee, showed poise throughout the competition as one contestant after another fell by the wayside. Though her ride was mostly smooth, the Spelling Bee itself saw some controversy.

After Thursday's preliminary rounds, 48 spellers started in the semifinal rounds, among them Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio. We were quite happy to see him there, since as we noted earlier, Nicholas had filled us in on his preparations for the Nationals, which included playing the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to improve on last year's 17th-place finish, going out early in the semifinals on a tricky French word, devant, meaning "in front of." But Nicholas is only in the sixth grade, and so he has two more opportunities to make it to the Nationals again. We expect to see him back!

As the semifinals continued, some other early favorites were stymied. Tim Ruiter, who tied for second place in 2009, misspelled fustanella (a short full skirt worn by men in some Balkan countries) as fustinella. The word took a circuitous route to English via Latin, Italian, Greek, and back to Italian. "The Greeks must have messed it up," Tim said wryly. Fourth-grader Shivani Angappan, the youngest competitor in the semifinals, went out on pneumonectomy, but we're quite likely to see her return in Bees to come.

A dramatic moment occurred when Neetu Chandak, the only four-time contestant in the semifinals and something of a fan favorite, was reinstated after misspelling paravane (a torpedo-shaped underwater protective device). She was brought back to the stage after the judges determined that she had been given an ambiguous answer when she had asked about the combining form, para-. (It turns out her mother had protested to the judges on her behalf.) After being reinstated, Neetu missed apogalacteum (the point of orbit of a star most remote from the galactic nucleus), spelling it with the -ium ending.

As the semifinals proceeded along, Bee director Paige Kimble decided to call a halt in the middle of Round 6 so that there would be 10 contestants in the prime-time finals on ABC. As reported by the Washington Post and the Associated Press, the decision set off numerous complaints, since it seemed to treat some spellers unfairly. Those who had been eliminated in the first part of Round 6 didn't get to enjoy the main spotlight, while those who had yet to spell in the round advanced. Kimble stressed that the ABC broadcast would begin with a continuation of Round 6, and that only those who made it to the next round were truly finalists, but the official website called the 10 prime-time spellers "championship finalists." (And the AP reported that the 10 also got to take part in the filming of a reality television show starring basketball star Shaquille O'Neal.) Some felt that the needs of the television broadcast were being overemphasized. "It kind of seems like the bee should be more about spelling," contestant Sonia Schlesinger told the AP. "We're just here to spell words — not about TV."

The mini-furor didn't faze the spellers who made it to the final rounds. The last spellers standing were Anamika, along with Adrian Gunawan of Chicago, Illinois; Elizabeth Platz of Columbia, Missouri; and Shantanu Srivatsa of Bismarck, North Dakota. But Adrian, Elizabeth, and Shantanu all misspelled words in Round 8. That meant that Anamika had to spell her Round 8 word correctly, and then spell an additional word correctly to win the championship. The pressure didn't get to her at all, as she confidently spelled juvia (a Brazil nut, from the Arawak language) and then stromuhr (an instrument measuring the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery) to take home the trophy. (She also won $30,000 in cash and a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, among other prizes.)

The only time that Anamika seemed like she might stumble was in Round 7, when she was given the word epiphysis (the end of a long bone in the limbs of higher vertebrates). She asked several questions, ending with, "Is there anything else I can ask?'' But she pulled it off in the end. "I didn't know that word but I kind of pieced it together through roots,'' she told Scripps News. "It was an informed guess that I almost didn't know.''

If you'd like to see some other words that appeared over the course of the semifinal and final rounds, check out the word list here. Among the hardest words were those like Tim Ruiter's fustanella with an unstressed "schwa" vowel in a middle syllable, such as caprifig (a wild variety of the common fig, misspelled as caprofig by Brian King) and meperidine (a synthetic narcotic drug, misspelled as meperedine by Sarah Allen). Nicholas Rushlow did warn us about "the dreaded schwa"! There were also some tricky eponyms, or words named after people, including Bayesian, venturi, and Guarnerius. Knowing root forms won't usually help you with eponyms — you either know them or you don't.

I had a highly enjoyable time keeping up with the action by posting updates to the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed — thanks to all who followed! And congratulations again to Anamika and all the indubitably impressive young spellers who kept us entertained and illuminated.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday June 5th 2010, 6:06 AM
Comment by: DONALD F. (AUSTIN, TX)
Second paragraph, second sentence--"We were quite happy to seem him there..." A mis-spelling on seem? [Fixed! —Ed.]

Enjoyed your article. Congratulations to all the young spellers with interesting names of their own.
Saturday June 5th 2010, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
It was great to read this description of what went on! So exciting. Many, many years ago I went to the state finals of our spelling bee but the words that these young people end up spelling weren't even bandied about way back when. It's incredible!!
Saturday June 5th 2010, 7:52 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I think the high point of my own spelling career was spelling 'youse' for 'use' (of course) in first grade.

Since then, I've just enjoyed spelling bees, never trying to top that!

I want to add my congratulations to all. Despite the TV problems and format fittings, they all seemed to come through like champs! It is too bad about the final 10 with some perhaps missing out on those champs bits.

I hope that WAS worked out so no one was in the final group who hadn't earned his or her way there. From the post, I gather so.

I enjoyed the lad from North Dakota, as well as our little Canadian champ. There was quite a struggle to get her word across to her.
Monday June 7th 2010, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Hart O. (Winnipeg Canada)
If only ---- had I, Hart Oldenburg, enjoyed the assistance of thesaurus and more so the visual variety in 1992 when I, as a food critic tried to create Hart Smart Living -- the book. Spell check and a word processor allowed it to happen.
It would have advanced my recent discovery of the cause of Obesity by at least 15 years. A stunning revelation, surprising even myself!
I did miss a word to define the fattening disease. Here goes: Carbohydritis. Descriptive, new, useful.

Thanks VT, divorcing me from Websters----------

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