Blog Excerpts

The Return of the Literary Spelling Bee

Last night, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses held its annual Spelling Bee in New York, supporting the work of independent literary publishers, and once again the Visual Thesaurus was proud to play a part. For the sixth consecutive year, the VT supplied the words that challenged the literary contestants. This year, the British novelist Patrick McGrath emerged victorious.

Competing in the event, held at New York's Standard Hotel, were Jonathan Burnham (Publisher, HarperCollins), Rosanne Cash (Composed: A Memoir), Carmela Ciuraru (Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms), Rigoberto González (Autobiography of My Hungers), Lev Grossman (The Magician King), Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Robert Levine (Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera), Colum McCann (Transatlantic), Patrick McGrath (Constance), Sara Nelson (Editorial Director,, Arthur Phillips (The Tragedy of Arthur), Elissa Schappell (Blueprints for Building Better Girls), Liesl Schillinger (Wordbirds), Darin Strauss (Half a Life), Adelle Waldman (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P), Rebecca Wolff (Fence Magazine), and Hanya Yanagihara (The People in the Trees).

The emcee was Ben Greenman (What He's Poised to Do), a former champion himself. American Dialect Society president Jesse Sheidlower served as judge, quizzing the participants with words chosen from the results of the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. Words got increasingly more difficult, based on the player data of the thousands of spellers who have played the VT Bee.

Singer/memoirist Rosanne Cash was defending her crown, having defeated the crowd last year with the winning word ischium ("one of the three sections of the hipbone, situated below the ilium"). But it would not be a repeat performance for Cash, as she went out in the first round, misspelling perigee ("the point in its orbit where a satellite is nearest to the Earth"). Rigoberto González spelled perigee correctly, eliminating Cash and Carmela Ciuraru in the process.

Rosanne Cash goes out on "perigee." Photo by Ron Hogan.

Other tricky words along the way included gingivitis, spelled correctly by Colum McCann, and humerus, which Sara Nelson wasn't tricked by after asking for the definition. Some spellers were stymied by such words as tarpon and kyphosis, and eventually the contestants were whittled down to a group that included Elissa Schappell, Darin Strauss, Lev Grossman, and Liesl Schillinger. Schillinger's latest book, Wordbirds, compiles her own witty neologisms (such as hollowgram, "an e-mail to which you forgot to attach a file before hitting Send"), but she did a fine job grappling with real words, too.

In the end, Patrick McGrath won the CLMP Bee, and his winning word was short but unusual: scup, a fish found off the Atlantic coast of the United States. Congratulations to McGrath and to his fellow competitors, all of whom contributed to an eminently worthy cause.

Update: See the Wall Street Journal for more coverage.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 30th 2013, 3:30 AM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea (the Republic of))
I think people would love to see the Spelling Bee contest on it available to watch?
Wednesday October 30th 2013, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Brendan: Unfortunately, I don't think this Spelling Bee was captured on video. But if you'd like to see video of a Bee involving members of Congress and the D.C. press corps, check it out here!
Wednesday October 30th 2013, 12:29 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I share the point of view concerning the Spelling Bee. I'm not sure to contest but hearing and watching the video; it's a pity.
Wednesday October 30th 2013, 5:30 PM
Comment by: Brendan M. (suwon Korea (the Republic of))
I just enjoyed watching the spelling bee contest between the press club & the congress govt reps. It was very enjoyable and very tough in later rounds.the govt side represented by senator from Virginia won.

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