Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2010 Spelling Bee: On to the Semifinals!

After the first day of competition at the 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee, the field of 273 contestants has been winnowed down to 48, who will move on to Friday's semifinal round. They'll all be looking to follow in the path of last year's winner, Kavya Shivashankar. As usual, the preliminary rounds featured some fascinatingly obscure words, from famulus (a close attendant, as to a scholar) to nullipara (a woman who has never given birth to a child).

I'm happy to report that sixth-grader Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio is one of the 48 semifinalists, marking the third year in a row that he has made it past the preliminaries. As we reported yesterday, Nicholas is one of the competitors who has used the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee as a preparatory tool. (He's also a charming interviewee.) So far, all of his training has served him well, and he's well-positioned to outdo his 17th-place finish last year.

Though it's the National Spelling Bee, the proceedings have developed an increasingly global outlook, with contestants coming from as far away as China and New Zealand. The words, too, have represented the international reach of English, encompassing an eclectic mix of loanwords from foreign languages.

The original pool of spellers had to score well enough (achieving a score of 27 or better) in three rounds: a 50-word written test on Wednesday, and two rounds of spelling on stage, conducted on Thursday. The words on the written test ranged from straightforward (refuse, tacit, callous) to baffling (tocsin, bouleversement, isocryme). But by the time Round Three rolled around on Thursday afternoon, the selected words were uniformly challenging.

Here are some of the highlights from the Round Three words:

You can test your own knowledge of Round Three words in this Community Spelling Bee, or see more words from the preliminary rounds in this word list. The semifinals will air on ESPN Friday starting at 10 a.m. Eastern time, with the finals broadcast on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern. If you want to get updates on the action, I'll be live-tweeting the semifinal and final rounds on the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed, so check it out! And I'll be back here on Word Routes Friday night with my final recap.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Friday June 4th 2010, 7:03 AM
Comment by: Vanda M. (Stockholm Sweden)
Great and useful!!!!!!!!
Friday June 4th 2010, 8:44 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Some of the words selected for the bee really are lethal. Are spellers supposed to pick them up as they read? Or is it understood that they have to specifically hunt down those words that have a treacherous spelling?
Friday June 4th 2010, 9:12 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
We've been Spelling Bee watchers for years now, Anon. The spellers who make it to the semis are usually kids who've been dedicated to learning to spell words. They make lists, practice daily, spend hours on it.

Some have said it's just 'come naturally, but those are rare. Mainly, these are bright kids who are intrigued by words, and want to conquer the spelling of them.

The foreign flavour of the words is a challenge for many. From the article above, I gather that being a newspaper reader would also be helpful.

I don't know why, but it seems to me that a growing number of the finalists are youngsters with Hindi (or other East Indian) background. Could this be because I just notice them (perhaps the names themselves give ethnicity away), or is maybe that something in their background encourages conquering vocabulary big-time. I do know that India has hundreds of languages,which might account for some interest in language itself.

It might just be the desire to learn.
Friday June 4th 2010, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Anon: Our interviews with Nicholas Rushlow and Tony Incorvati give some insights into the kind of training the top spellers need to do. I'd also highly recommend the documentary Spellbound, which follows the paths of several spellers to the Nationals.

Jane: There's an interesting piece on Slate about why Indian-American kids do so well on the spelling bee circuit.
Friday June 4th 2010, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
Thanks, Jane and Ben, for the links and the facts. I wrote earlier as Anon. I am word-besotten myself, but some of these words that come up in the Spelling Bee are stuck deep down in the wordmine. And, when presented out of context, as isolated words to be spelled, I wonder what kind of skills--if language-related at all--are being tested. I'd be curious to see if anyone has studied the lives of great spellers, say, twenty or thirty years after the Spelling Bee. (True, I did notice that Ben Bernanke was in one of them.) I'll look up the links, and thanks for the comments. The interviews did give me a good sense of the spellers' training.
Friday June 4th 2010, 11:36 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks, Ben! I guess there had to be a logical reason! I didn't think of that one. But it is related to one of my guesses, family interest in education.

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