Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2012 Spelling Bee: San Diego's Snigdha Nandipati Wins a "Miracle"

In the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee, the words were as diabolical as ever, but Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, California took it all in stride. When it came time to spell the final word, guetapens, a French-derived word for "an ambush, snare, or trap," she wasn't snared by its strangeness and calmly spelled it correctly.

After the confetti fell, she excitedly said the victory was a "miracle." But perhaps it wasn't so miraculous after all: she acknowledged she had seen the winning word, and all the others she had to spell, in her training for the Bee. All that hard work paid off marvelously.

When the semifinals started on Thursday morning, the 50 semifinalists included some familiar faces to Bee watchers. There was Arvind Mahankali of Bayside, N.Y., who tied for third last year. And there was Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, competing in his fifth and final year, who we got to know after we discovered he was using the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee in his training. The ESPN announcers dubbed Arvind the early frontrunner, but they said that Nicholas was the sentimental favorite, as he had achieved a kind of celebrity status among his fellow spellers. And there was Vanya Shivashankar of Olanthe, Kansas, whose sister Kavya won the 2009 Bee and who had aced the preliminaries. All were very strong contestants.

Spellers began to fall as the difficulty of the words increased. Rahul Malayappan of Danbury, Conn., like Nicholas a five-time competitor, went out in Round 5. And given all those fives, it was ironic that the word he missed was quinquennalia, meaning "public games celebrated in ancient Rome every five years." Rahul spelled it as quinquenalia, and it turned out that tricky doubled consonants would bring down several other spellers over the course of the day. For instance, Simola Nayak of Tucker, Ga. spelled rapparee "an Irish irregular soldier of the 17th century" with one p, and Vismaya Kharkar of Bountiful, Utah spelled pissaladière "an open-faced pastry topped with olives, onions, and anchovies" with one s (and two r's).

Vanya Shivashankar, meanwhile, was stymied by pejerrey, a Spanish-derived name of a fish from the South American coasts, spelling it as pejare. Often with these foreign words, it is extremely tricky to discern the orthographic rules that they follow. (All words in the Bee, no matter how foreign-sounding, appear in an unabridged English dictionary -- namely, Webster's Third New International.) Vanya is only a fifth grader, however, so she has three more chances to follow in her sister Kavya's footsteps.

Both Arvind and Nicholas sailed through to the prime-time finals, making the cut for the final nine. Others included Gifton Wright of Spanish Town, Jamaica, who showed the courteous sportsmanship that Jamaican spellers perennially display. But the words got even tougher, and finalists began falling by the wayside. Gifton was eventually stumped by ericeticolous meaning "inhabiting a heath." He started it with ero-, once again proving that the unstressed schwa sound can be a speller's downfall, as it can be spelled with just about any vowel. Similarly, Jordan Hoffman of Lee's Summit, Missouri misspelled canities, meaning "grayness or whiteness of the hair,' by replacing the a with an o, and Emma Ciereszynski of Dover, N.H. spelled the Italian ridotto "an arrangement or abridgment of musical composition" as redatto.

Nicholas was done in by what he called "the dreaded schwa" as well, spelling the Tamil-to-French-to-English word vetiver, a kind of aromatic grass, as vetover. Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia was tripped up by geistlich, a German musical term meaning "with deep feeling" by ending it with -leich. Nicholas, Lena, and Gifton ended up tied for fourth place, and three spellers remained: Arvind and Snigdha, along with Stuti Mishra of West Melbourne, Florida. Arvind and Stuti didn't have trouble with words with schwa, but they did fall victim to German-derived words beginning with schwa-, oddly enough. Arvind misspelled schwannoma "a tumor of the sheath of peripheral nerve" as schvanoma, and Stuti misspelled schwarmerei, a word for "excessive unbridled enthusiam or attachment," as schwermerei.

After Stuti's misstep, it was up to Snigdha to win it all with her final word, guetapens. If she hadn't, there was a good possibility that she and Stuti could have ended up in a tie after the 25 championship words that the two of them had to spell were exhausted. But it was not to be: Snigdha, whose name we learned means "flowing like honey" or "mellifluous," was crowned the winner. As the champion, she receives a $30,000 cash prize from Scripps, an engraved trophy, and more than $10,000 in other prizes and scholarships. A hearty congratulations to her and all the contestants! I had a great time tracking the Bee by posting updates to the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed — thank you to all who followed. You can check out the Storify version of the Twitter play-by-play here.

If you'd like to see a list of some of the tough words from this year's semifinal and final rounds, we've put one together here. Or try the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee to see how well you stack up against the best spellers!


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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 2nd 2012, 8:06 PM
Comment by: ked E. (Petal, MS)
Well, well, is this a test of memory? reading ability or enthusiasm ?
As a speaker of english, russian, german, a good dose of french and drops of spanish, all mounted on my original Sierra Leone Krio language, it just does not make sense to me to expect kids to be able to spell geistlich or schwarmerei or schadenfreude with a hint of german, nor having had any Deutsche Unterricht. I guess rote learning without the ethymology is all that counts. This is not the path to scientific cognitive thinking. Celebrate Spelling Bee, yes. The real inventors and creative minds of the future are tweaking wires and connecting batteries as we spell.
KNEJ.
Sunday June 3rd 2012, 3:44 PM
Comment by: Robert M. (New York, NY)
We should look at the National Spelling Bee (which I love to watch) as an academic sport. Regard it as an extracurricular activity, and that will save us the trouble of debating the value of children learning to spell "guetapens," "chionablepsia," etc.
Sunday June 3rd 2012, 5:12 PM
Comment by: Robert M. (New York, NY)
Don't get me wrong; I think it's great that these spelling bee contestants are so motivated that they want to learn so much etymology beyond what the normal school literacy curriculum offers. That is the point of my saying the National Spelling Bee should be treated as an extracurricular activity. Athletes want to learn stunning plays; spelling bee contestants want to learn huge or esoteric words.
Sunday June 3rd 2012, 6:03 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Thank you for this special writing on this year's National Spelling Bee contest. In fact, I was waiting for this column as I know, Mr. Ben will collect and present the entire winning stories with the winner's name and prize money and the meaning of those all esoteric words.
Special thanks from me for the Bee winners. I wish to be like one of those winners. Now it is "once upon a time" era.
Anyway, I feel excited with the winners and share with them the million dollar smile. Let miracle be happen for all of us. Amen!
Monday June 4th 2012, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Hasan M.
Very good article. I have been waiting to get the list of such esoteric words tested in this competition. Thanks a million to Mr. Ben.
Tuesday June 5th 2012, 3:04 PM
Comment by: Abraham Y.
Spelling bee participants memorize by heart thousands of words. Memorizing is not a sign of intelligence.
Tuesday June 5th 2012, 5:31 PM
Comment by: Robert M. (New York, NY)
If the really top spellers in the National Spelling Bee have to rely on pure memorization of words, those words would most likely be the ones that follow no consistent pattern or rule. But watch the championship finalists in the NSB and they will ask for language of origin, ask if a certain root is the one for the word they are asked to spell, etc. This goes beyond the recitative, rote memorization that seemed to be more the norm of NSBs of decades ago. It is a form of problem solving.
Thursday June 7th 2012, 4:40 PM
Comment by: KawaiiKitty^3^ (NY)
i wow that is amazing
Tuesday July 17th 2012, 5:21 PM
Comment by: Dheeraj N.
Good Job Snigdha! Like a True Indian!

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