Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2012 Spelling Bee: 50 Survive the Preliminaries

The 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee kicked off yesterday, with 278 spellers getting whittled down to 50 semifinalists who will compete in the nationally televised action on Thursday. A precocious six-year-old didn't make the cut, but an old friend of ours, Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, will be back in the thick of it for his fifth consecutive year.

Much of the pre-Bee publicity surrounded Lori Anne Madison of Lake Ridge, Va., who at six years old is the youngest participant on record. It's mind-boggling that someone so young could make it to this level, given how difficult the words are in the national competition. Even though she came up short in the preliminary rounds, she's a safe bet for many return trips in future years, as students can compete through the eighth grade.

One eighth-grader, Nicholas Rushlow, is truly an old hand at the Bee. Nicholas first competed in the nationals back in 2008, when he was only a fourth grader. We first heard about him after his 17th-place finish the following year, when we were pleased to discover that he was using the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee for practice. We talked to him about how he trains for spelling bees, and how the VT Bee (which adapts to players' skill levels) has given him a competitive edge. You can read our interview with Nicholas here, and you can also check out some of his favorite words here. We were impressed by his good-natured personality, which has continued to shine through in his repeat performances at the national bee.

As in past years, the young spellers who qualified for the nationals had to score well enough in three rounds to advance: a computer test on Tuesday, and two rounds of spelling on stage yesterday. Contestants were awarded one point for words spelled correctly on the written test, and three points for words spelled correctly on stage, with the top 50 point scorers advancing to the semifinals. This year, it turns out there was only speller who finished the preliminaries with a perfect score: fifth-grader Vanya Shivashankar of Olanthe, Kansas, whose sister Kavya was the winner of the 2009 Bee. Vanya could be a strong contender for Thursday's semifinal and final rounds, but don't count out Nicholas or another five-timer, Rahul Malayappan of Danbury, Conn. Arvind Mahankali of Bayside, N.Y., could also make his move after finishing 9th in 2010 and 3rd in last year's grueling 20-round finals.

Though the diminutive Lori Anne won't be joining them, she impressed everyone with her preternatural confidence and good cheer. In the first on-stage round, she easily spelled dirigible, but the next round presented a much harder word: ingluvies, defined as "the crop of a bird or insect." She was just one letter off, spelling it with an initial e instead of an i, and her score on the computer test wasn't enough to offset the error. Nicholas, meanwhile, nonchalantly spelled taxonomically and gabbai, the latter word defined as "a collector of charitable gifts or of taxes among the Jews in talmudic times," in case you didn't know. You can see a list of challenging words that appeared in the on-stage rounds here.

Now it's on to the semifinals, televised on ESPN2 at 10 a.m. ET, and the finals on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. If you're unable to tune in, never fear — I'll be live-tweeting the competition on the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed as I've done for the past few years. And after the finals, watch this space for a full recap of the action 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:

Monday June 4th 2012, 2:14 AM
Comment by: Bree (Mesa, AZ)
How do I post this article to my Facebook page? Not only would it garner some interest for the spelling bee but for VT too!

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