Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2014 Spelling Bee: 46 Spellers Survive, Advancing to Semifinals

It's time once again for the Scripps National Spelling Bee! Two hundred and eighty-one young spellers gathered near Washington, D.C. and sweated through the preliminary rounds yesterday. For the second year, those rounds included not just questions about the spelling of words but also their definitions. After all was said and done, 46 survived to advance to Thursday's semifinals.

On Tuesday, all of the qualifiers started off with a computer-based test in a format that was introduced in last year's Bee: questions were split between spelling and vocabulary questions, with 12 of each type counting toward the competitors' final scores. Since vocab questions have now been incorporated at the school and regional levels around the country, the students were no doubt prepared to handle questions on definitions. Here are the 12 vocabulary questions from the initial test:

  1. What does it mean to abrogate?
    Answer: annul or repeal
  2. "Beaucoup apple pie" means:
    Answer: a lot of apple pie
  3. Which of these is most similar to calumny?
    Answer: slander
  4. Something described as eccentric:
    Answer: deviates from common usage in a whimsical way
  5. Something described as inscrutable is:
    Answer: not readily comprehensible
  6. Something described as manifold is marked by:
    Answer: diversity or variety
  7. Something described as oblique is:
    Answer: slanting in direction or position
  8. What does phlebotomy refer to?
    Answer: drawing blood from a vein
  9. A rongeur would most likely be used by:
    Answer: a surgeon
  10. Which of these would be a mark of a sybaritic lifestyle?
    Answer: opulent luxury
  11. Trenchant means:
    Answer: sharply perceptive
  12. What does vicissitude refer to?
    Answer: a change of luck

(These questions were each worth one point, but each contestant was also given two additional vocab questions that were significantly harder than those in the first round, worth three points each.)

Last year I talked to Bee director Paige Kimble about the introduction of vocabulary questions, and she explained that contestants weren't expected to memorize exact definitions. As the above examples demonstrate, word meanings were tested in a more general way. If you would like to test your knowledge on both the spelling and meaning of words from Rounds 2 and 3, check out the Vocabulary.com lists here and here.

After the on-stage spelling rounds of the preliminaries, the original 281 had been whittled down a bit, since anyone who spelled a word wrong heard the ding of the bell and was automatically eliminated. Then came the more serious vetting: of the remaining qualifiers, 46 were selected to advance to the semifinals based on their total scores in the computerized testing.

Among those advancing were Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., who finished in third place last year, Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who finished in fifth place, and Joseph Cusi Delamerced of Cincinnati, who tied for twelfth place. Vanya is one of the favorites, and not just because her sister Kavya was the winner of the 2009 Bee. Anamika Veeramani, winner in 2010, was also cheering on as her younger brother Ashwin advanced.

We were especially happy to see Greer Marshall of Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. competing in the nationals this year. Greer, as we learned from her English teacher Michael Gueltig, used the "spellng bee" feature on Vocabulary.com word lists to help prepare. Unfortunately, after the scores from the computerized tests were tabulated, Greer ended up missing out on qualifying for the semifinals by two points. But as a sixth grader she still has two more years of eligibility, so we hope to see her back!

Now it's on to the semifinals, televised on ESPN2 at 10 a.m. EDT, and the finals on ESPN at 8 p.m. EDT. If you're unable to tune in, never fear — I'll be live-tweeting the competition on the @VocabularyCom Twitter feed. 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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