Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

National Spelling Bee: 41 Survive Tough Words in Prelims

The preliminary rounds of the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee are over! After a computerized test and two rounds of spelling on stage, 41 of the original 243 contestants have made it to the semifinal round. And even in these early rounds, the spellers encountered some tremendously difficult words.

In Round One's computerized test on Tuesday, competitors had to spell 50 words, of which 25 count toward their score. The spellers earned one point for each correct answer, even though the words ranged from the easy (warrant, thorough, asylum) to the downright obscure (who knew onychorrhexis was an abnormal brittleness of the fingernails or toenails?). Then on Wednesday, the kids hit the stage at the Independence Ballroom at Washington D.C.'s Grand Hyatt. The words spelled in Round Two and Three were worth three points each. It took a minimum of 28 points from the first three rounds to advance to Thursday's semifinals.

Round Three was where things got interesting, word-wise. There were some "gimmes" in the mix: inexorable, dahlia, repertoire, truculent, rapacious are words that wouldn't stump average to above-average spellers in the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. But the Scripps contestants also faced some bigger hurdles. Here's a sampling (see this word list for more):

  • For some reason, there was plenty of pasta on hand: mostaccioli (pasta shaped like little mustaches), farfalle (pasta shaped like bowties), and Tetrazzini (pasta dish with cream sauce and mushrooms).

  • A couple of furry tropical mammals wandered in: kinkajou (an arboreal mammal of tropical America) and coati (omnivorous mammal of Central America and South America). And there were various other creatures, from the mythical amphisbaena (a serpent with a head at each end of its body) to the hybrid cattalo (the result of crossbreeding cattle and buffalo).

  • For the botanically minded, there were orrisroot (fragrant rootstock of various irises), witloof (another name for endive), and carnauba (Brazilian fan palm having an edible root) for the herbalist's pot.

  • Could a musician perform a scherzo (a fast movement, usually in triple time) for a schottische (a German round dance resembling a slow polka), played on an ocarina (egg-shaped terra-cotta wind instrument with a mouthpiece and finger holes)?

  • Getting a little metalinguistic, there were several words about words: anastrophe (reversal of normal order of words), sesquipedalian (describing a long and ponderous word, literally "a foot and a half long"), and solecism (a nonstandard usage or grammatical construction).

  • Finally, some fun miscellanea: invigilation (keeping watch over examination candidates to prevent cheating), oubliette (a dungeon with the only entrance or exit being a trap door in the ceiling), and Savoyard (a person who performs in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, named after the Savoy Theater in London).

As I said after last year's finals, I hope that some of the spellers take a break from mere memorization to learn about the fascinating histories behind these words. But for now, the pressure's on for the 41 spellers left standing: semifinals start at 10 a.m. (broadcast on ESPN), with the finals following at 8 p.m. (broadcast on ABC).

I'm currently attending another festival of lexophilia — the biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America in Bloomington, Indiana. But I'll be checking in on the semifinal and final rounds of the Scripps Bee, so watch this space for further updates!


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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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Get into the spelling spirit with the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee.
Our recap of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Where do they get the words for the National Spelling Bee, anyway?