Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2011 Spelling Bee: Sukanya Roy Wins a 20-Round Marathon

It took 20 grueling rounds, but Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township, Pennsylvania emerged victorious in the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 41 semifinalists had been whittled down to 13 for the prime-time finals, and the last handful of contestants kept the competition going with round after round of flawless spelling. Sukanya outlasted them all, winning with the word cymotrichous, meaning "having wavy hair."

The semifinals kicked off at 10 a.m., and we here were unabashedly rooting for two Ohio spellers, Tony Incorvati and Nicholas Rushlow, who had told us about their training with the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. Unfortunately, neither made it to the finals, though they can be proud of their finishes this year. Tony went out in Round 5, leaving him tied for 27th place, while Nicholas lasted until Round 7, good enough for a tie for 14th place — just out of the running for the finals. Tony missed on syringadenous (relating to the sweat glands), spelling it seringadinous, and Nicholas misspelled caffeol (a fragrant oil produced by roasting coffee) as caffiol. This is Tony's last year in the Bee, since he's an eighth-grader, but Nicholas has one more year to compete. And if he comes back next year, Nicholas would be competing for his fifth consecutive year — quite an achievement. Here's hoping!

The finals (broadcast on ESPN this year instead of ABC, since ABC was airing the NBA finals) started modestly enough. Laura Newcombe, a three-time champion of the Canadian Spelling Bee correctly spelled rapprochement (a state of cordial relations), not a particularly difficult word. But after a few more rounds, the words got extremely tough. And if you hadn't eaten before watching the finals, your stomach would have been grumbling, thanks to the large number of food terms: cioppino, andouille, teppanyaki, profiterole... yum!

There were some fantastically obscure words along the way, too. Did you know that hexafoos is the word for a three-toed mark on barns in Pennsylvania, used to keep evil spirits away from cattle? Dakota Jones of Las Vegas apparently did. Dakota was one of the five finalists, along with Laura Newcombe, Sukanya Roy, Arvind Mahankali, and Joanna Ye, who just kept going, and going, and going... At one point they had a streak of 21 words in a row spelled correctly. It started to feel like it would go on all night. Would they eventually run out of words? Merriam-Webster editor at large Peter Sokolowski reminded his Twitter audience that Webster's Third, the unabridged dictionary from which the word list is derived, has 476,000 words in it, so there was no danger of ever reaching the bottom of the barrel.

Dakota eventually missed a word: zanja (an irrigational ditch, from American Spanish) — the Spanish j pronounced as h tripped him up. Arvind Mahankali then went out on Jugendstil (a German decorative style parallel to art nouveau), and Joanna Ye misspelled galoubet (a small flute played with one hand, from Provencal). That left Sukanya and Laura as the last two, and their back-and-forth display of spelling kept things remarkably tense.

Laura finally missed out on sorites (an aggregation of related things) guessing that the Greek word started with ps-. Sukanya then had to spell two words correctly to win, and she did just that: periscii (those who live in polar circle and shadows move toward every compass point) and finally the wavy-haired cymotrichous. Sukanya was greeted with an emotional standing ovation, and it was all over. 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. Well-deserved! And congratulations to all the competitiors, who put on an incredible performance of spelling prowess. It was quite enjoyable tracking the Bee with updates to the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed — thanks to all who followed! 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 head on over to the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee if you want to see how well you stack up against the best spellers!

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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 3rd 2011, 5:35 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Very interesting account of the spelling bee.

Spanish "zanja" is pronounced very differently. Spanish speakers pronounce as the sound in "thin". Also, the is a velar sound (like the Scottish pronunciation of "loch") instead of the English glottal /h/ sound.
Friday June 3rd 2011, 5:37 AM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
Some words are missing in my previous comment !

I mean the "z" is pronounced as in "thin" and the "j" is pronounced as in the Scottish word "loch".
Friday June 3rd 2011, 12:02 PM
Comment by: bobi B. (Belgium)
Quite inspiring. Hard work and mettle lead to success.
Friday June 3rd 2011, 10:32 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Good job Sukanya, and all the spellers. I hope Nicholas Rushlow wins next year. He is a great role model, and is very smart. I would have loved to be there competing, but something prevented me from getting to nationals, which was unfair. Whoever wins next year, know that all the time was worth it! "Spell with your dream! Spell with your heart! Spell with your love!" Always aim for your dream! I dreamed of being the first champion from Utah since I was seven, but that dream was lost. I will miss the spelling bee, but I want to continue studying words the rest of my life!
Saturday June 4th 2011, 3:10 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Congratulations Sukanya!
Monday June 6th 2011, 4:51 AM
Comment by: meenu G.
Great Job sukanya !!!!!
Wednesday June 8th 2011, 4:06 AM
Comment by: Marileidys E.
I love the use of words in this article. :p It helped me practice some words I had learned, and to re-check on a few others :p
Monday June 13th 2011, 11:41 AM
Comment by: Blue
Fantastic job to all of the participants. I personally know how grueling it can be to study and practice for a scripps spelling bee, having been in two myself. All of the spellers deserve a pat on the back for making it as far as they did.

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After preliminary rounds, 41 spellers advanced to the semifinals this year.
Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio was last year's winner.
How top spellers prepare using the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee.