Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2011 Spelling Bee: The Fearless 41 Advance

The 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee got underway yesterday, as the 275 entrants faced the early rounds of spelling stumpers. Only 41 will advance to Thursday's semifinal round, but we're happy to report that two of them are familiar faces to us: Nicholas Rushlow and Tony Incorvati, both of Ohio, are returning spellers who have told us how they use the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee for practice. We wouldn't want to play favorites, but, well... go Nicholas and Tony!

Nicholas and Tony are actually friends who met up in previous years of the Scripps Bee. Nicholas, a seventh-grader from Pickerington, Ohio, is competing for the fourth consecutive year — impressively, he is the only four-timer remaining among the semifinalists. (His best finish was 17th place in 2009.) Tony, an eighth-grader from Uniontown, Ohio, participated in the 2008 and 2009 Bees. With all that experience, they ought to have a competitive advantage going into the semifinal and final rounds (to be televised on ESPN).

They also have an edge from playing the Visual Thesaurus Bee as a way to prepare. We talked to both Nicholas and Tony during the last bee season and learned about how they train for spelling bees, and how the VT Bee (which adapts to players' skill levels) has helped them out. You can read our interviews with them here and here, and you can also check out some of their favorite words here and here. They're both charming, good-natured kids who wear their amazing spelling abilities lightly.

As in past years, the young spellers who qualified for the nationals had to score well enough in three rounds to advance: a written test on Tuesday, and two rounds of spelling on stage yesterday. Nicholas confidently took the stage again, spelling clairsentience (perception of what is not normally perceptible) and philippic (a speech of violent denunciation) to advance. Tony, meanwhile, got through on wastrel (someone who dissipates resources self-indulgently) and foggara (an underground conduit for water in desert country). Tony told USA Today that he still finds the Bee "nerve-wracking" after all these years, but his preparation has guided the way:

"I studied different spelling patterns in different languages, like Latin, Greek, French, German... That helps, because I cannot memorize the entire dictionary."
That familiarity with word origins helped him spell the Arabic-based word "foggara" — meaning an ancient water-supply system — during the second preliminary round, helping him qualify for the semifinals.

It wasn't all about Nicholas and Tony, of course. The other 39 qualifiers for the semifinals acquitted themselves admirably, navigating such toughies as zoanthropy (the delusion that you have assumed the form of an animal), rupicolous (composed of or inscribed on rock), lahar (an avalanche of volcanic water and mud down the slopes of a volcano), and jalousie (a window with glass louvers). They knew their keeshond (a spitz-like dog from Holland) from their muishond (a southern African weasel). And they knew how to spell no less than three terms for Japanese-Americans: issei (a Japanese immigrant to America), nisei (a child of issei parents born and educated in America), and kibei (a child of issei parents born in America and educated in Japan). You can see a list of challenging words that appeared in the second and third rounds here.

What makes Spelling Bee words so difficult to spell? I'm glad you asked! I was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition on this very subject yesterday, and for the accompany article on the NPR website, I gave even more tips about the most perilous pitfalls of English spelling.

If you can't tune in to ESPN for the seminfinals at 10 a.m. ET or the finals at 8:30 p.m. ET, never fear — I'll be live-tweeting the competition on the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed as I've done for the past couple of years. And I'll be back with a full recap right here on Word Routes.

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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:

Thursday June 2nd 2011, 6:47 PM
Comment by: Francisco Javier (Málaga Spain)
My, those words are difficult!

Anyway, being a good speller is evidently a good thing. But being able to use the language to communicate effectively and appropriately in a variety of registers is the ultimate goal.

It's not about how many words you can spell correctly ( list-learning ), it's about how well you can use your knowledge of the lexicon to argue, narrate, inform, describe, etc.
Tuesday June 7th 2011, 8:42 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Congratulations and an excellent well done work.
Genius work indeed.
I work so hard to learn, memorize and reproduce some meaningful new words to my writing and conversational topic that I actually realize those eights graders, each of them are above average person.
My best wishes is for all of them.

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How Nicholas and Tony prepare using the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee.
A recap of last year's preliminary rounds.
Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio emerged victorious last year.