Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2013 Spelling Bee: Arvind Mahankali Turns "German Curse" Into "German Blessing"

Much of the buzz leading up to the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee had to do with the first-ever inclusion of vocabulary questions in the off-stage portions of the competition. But in the end, it came down to a traditional spelling face-off over tricky words originating from other languages. Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York had been stumped by German-derived words in the last two Bees, but this time a German word was his salvation.

In 2011, Arvind finished in third place after misspelling Jugendstil (a German decorative style parallel to art nouveau), which sounded so unusual to him that he mispronounced it as "You could steal" before being corrected by the pronouncer, Dr. Jacques Bailly. Then in 2012, he finished in third yet again, this time misspelling schwannoma, a German borrowing for a kind of tumor.

This year, when it came time to spell the final word that would seal the championship, the audience groaned when Dr. Bailly said that knaidel, another word for "dumpling," came from German-derived Yiddish. (To be more specific, the German version is knödel, which in Yiddish became kneydel.) But Arvind was not deterred, spelling it correctly and triggering the celebratory confetti. Afterwards, he told the ESPN interviewer that "the German curse has turned into the German blessing."

The day began with 42 semifinalists, who made it through the tough preliminary rounds. In the morning, before they got to go on stage in the televised rounds of spelling, they had to take a computerized test, just as they had in the prelims. This computer test for the semifinalists was another change in the format this year, and as with the prelim test it was evenly split between spelling questions and multiple-choice vocabulary questions. While the spelling portion included such words as Mertensia (a genus of herbs) and soupçon (a slight amount), the twelve vocabulary questions that the semifinalists faced were:

  1. What is anacoluthon?
    Answer: a syntactical inconsistency within a sentence
  2. A dilettante is a person who:
    Answer: superficially dabbles in an art or branch of knowledge
  3. A person described as enigmatic is:
    Answer: mysterious or puzzling
  4. What does glossalgia refer to?
    Answer: pain in the tongue
  5. Something described as hyalescent resembles:
    Answer: glass
  6. What does keratectomy refer to?
    Answer: surgical removal of part of the cornea
  7. What does it mean to lionize a person?
    Answer: treat him as a celebrity
  8. What does sangfroid refer to?
    Answer: cold-blooded imperturbability
  9. Which of these is an example of sedulous behavior?
    Answer: diligently preparing for an exam
  10. Something described as tellurian relates to:
    Answer: earth
  11. What is a vitrine?
    Answer: a glass display case
  12. Something described as xylophagous:
    Answer: feeds on wood

(Scripps didn't release the wrong answers to the questions, but you can see what sample questions and answers look like here.) In addition to these, each semifinalist also had to answer two more vocab questions (for Rounds 5 and 6) that were individually assigned to them. The total score from all of these questions would come into play later on, when the semifinalist pool had to be winnowed down to the finalists.

But first, the semifinalists ascended the stage for two televised rounds of spelling. A handful of the words in these rounds seemed to be in the realm of mere mortals (encephalitis, physiognomy, tatterdemalion), but by and large they were as diabolical as ever. Often the toughest words came from French, as in abattoir (a slaughterhouse), persiflage (light teasing), and surtout (an overcoat). There were also a number of difficult eponyms, or words derived from people's names, such as Michelangelesque, from Michelangelo.

A common theme in past years has been "the dreaded schwa": when that unstressed syllable appears in the middle of the word, it may be entirely unclear which vowel letter to assign to it unless the speller has memorized the word in question. The schwa continued to take out spellers this year: in the semifinals, diplodocus (a herbivorous dinosaur) was misspelled as diplodicus and morosoph (a learned fool) as morisoph. Greek-derived words with a "k" sound that could be spelled as "c" or "ch" also presented problems, with ecphonesis (an exclamatory rhetorical device) spelled echphenesis and olecranon (a bony projection of the ulna, aka the "funny bone") spelled olechranon.

Since the on-stage semifinal rounds were capped this year at two (meaning each semifinalist only had the opportunity to spell two words orally), the computerized test was needed to whittle down the number for the prime-time finals. That resulted in the 18 remaining semifinalists getting cut down to 11 who would advance. Along with Arvind were some familiar faces, such as crowd favorites Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan. (whose sister Kavya won the Bee in 2009) and four-timer Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla.

It seemed like it might be a late night after a couple of rounds in the finals only narrowed the field to nine. But then Grace Remmer went out on melocoton (a peach grafted on a quince rootstock), a word so tough that eventual champion Arvind admitted later he didn't know how to spell it. Grace received a nice standing ovation from the crowd. After another round there were only six, and then Vanya Shivashankar went out on zenaida (a tropical American pigeon whose name comes from Zénaïde, wife of Charles Lucien Bonaparte). Vanya, unlike Grace, is still eligible to come back next year, so you can be sure to see her again trying to match sister Kavya.

After Vismaya Kharkar of Bountiful, Utah and Amber Born of Marblehead, Mass. also heard the ding of the bell, that left three boys: Arvind, Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, NY, and Pranav Sivakumar of Tower Lakes, Ill. That assured a girl wouldn't win it for the first time since 2008. Sriram was the next to fall, misspelling ptyalagogue (an agent which promotes the flow of saliva) as ptyalogogue — the dreaded schwa strikes again. When Pranav unaccountably misspelled cyanophycean (blue-green algae) by ending it with -cein, and Arvind correctly spelled tokonoma (a niche in a Japanese house for hanging a picture), one championship word was all that Arvind needed to win it. Knaidel, that German/Yiddish dumpling, turned out to be a savory treat indeed.

As I've done for the past few years, I live-tweeted the semifinals and the finals, giving a full play-by-play. If you'd like to relive the excitement, I've assembled the tweets using Storify. And to see some of the challenging words from the semifinal and final rounds, check out our list here.

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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 May 31st 2013, 7:05 AM
Comment by: ===Dan (Jersey City, NJ)
Words that come into English from German-derived Yiddish often have multiple renderings. A couple of friends have noted that they would have expected KNEIDEL. That's consistent with my recollection too, and I've seen some dictionary support. Does the contest have an official wordlist--to which contestants have access--that disambiguates, or would the judges accept alternative spellings (especially when coming to English from a language using a different alphabet)?
Friday May 31st 2013, 8:14 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Dan: The official wordlist is derived from the Bee's dictionary of record, Webster's Third New International. Only the knaidel spelling is given there, so if Arvind had seen it before (as it appears he did), then that's the only spelling he would have come across. It's true, though, that other dictionaries, such as Collins, spell it as kneidel.
Friday May 31st 2013, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Dan C. (NJ)
Thanks, Ben. I guess that rules out "knaidelach" as the plural too. :-)
Friday May 31st 2013, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Actually, Webster's Third gives knaidelach as the plural! I wonder if Arvind knew that too.

On The Daily Beast, Daniel Gross has some further thoughts on the many possible spellings of knaidel.
Wednesday June 5th 2013, 6:39 AM
Comment by: Daniel S. (Bristol United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
In England (or in my house at least), the emphasis in diplodocus is on the third syllable which is prounounced like "doe", which no doubt makes that word much easier to spell. But in America I think it is on the second syllable "plod", which creates the dreaded schwa moment on that second "o". I wonder if any British contestants were saved by that alternate pronunciation. Or maybe I'm the only one who says it that way :)

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