Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

2015 Spelling Bee: Co-Champions Triumph Again, as Vanya and Gokul Prove Unbeatable

Last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee saw the first tie since 1962, with co-champions hoisting the big trophy together. This year it was déjà vu all over again, as spelling titans Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, KS and Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, MO battled to the finish, exhausting the championship word list and finishing as co-champs.

Vanya and Gokul were among the favorites going in, so it wasn't a big surprise to see them slugging it out at the end. Vanya, whose sister Kavya won the 2009 Bee, is an old hand, coming in 10th in 2012, 5th in 2013, and 13th last year. Gokul, meanwhile, finished oh-so-close last year, in 3rd place behind the co-champs Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe.

It was sweet revenge for Vanya, who didn't make the cut for the finals last year because of changes to the format of the Bee that introduced off-stage computerized tests of both spelling and vocabulary questions. Scores from these portions are taken into account to determine a cutoff in points when the semifinalists are whittled down to the finalists. Vanya just missed that cutoff, even though she hadn't misspelled any words on stage. This year, she was determined not to let that happen again.

During the semifinal round (televised during the day on ESPN2), 49 spellers from the original pool of nearly 300 took the stage, and 28 were eliminated when they heard the ding of the bell signaling an incorrectly spelled word. Another 11 were eliminated based on their point totals, leaving 10 to advance to the evening finals. (You can try your hand at spelling words from the semifinals here.)

The finals kicked off with a word that all the spellers no doubt knew quite well: bouillabaisse, the French fish stew, which Snehaa Kumar of Folsom, CA had no trouble digesting. But right after that two contestants went out, with Sylvie Lamontagne of Lakewood, CO missing cerastes (a horned viper) and Siyona Mishra of Orlando, FL missing haček (the name for the Czech diacritical mark that you see over the c in haček).

Soon other spellers were also falling by the wayside, including Tejas Muthusamy of Glen Allen, VA, who missed Tartarean (relating to the infernal lands of Greek mythology), and fan favorite Dev Jaiswal of Louisville, MS, who missed iridocyclitis (inflammation of the iris and ciliary body of the eye). Both received warm standing ovations.

Next to go were Siddharth Krishnakumar of Pearland, TX (misspelling minhag, a Jewish religious custom) and Cole Shafer-Ray of Norman, OK (misspelling acritarch, a small organic fossil). That left Vanya and Gokul as the last spellers standing, a matchup that some prognosticators had predicted from the start.

By then, the Bee officials had already moved on to the Championship Word List, a list of 25 super-tough words used when there are only three spellers left. So when Siddharth went out, the list of 25 began to be used for Cole, Vanya, and Gokul. And when Cole went out, there were still 22 words left on the list.

But with Vanya and Gokul left on the stage, those Championship Words just seemed too easy for them. When it came down to the two of them, I predicted (as part of my Twitter play-by-play for @VocabularyCom) that it looked like we could get co-champions again. And sure enough, those words just kept falling, regardless of what obscure origins they came from. (Gokul happened to get one of my favorite words: sprachgefühl, a handy German word that means "an intuitive feeling for the natural idiom of a language.")

Vanya sliced through scherenschnitte (the art of cutting paper into decorative designs, from the German for "scissors cut"), and then there were only three words left on the Championship List. The pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, informed Gokul that if he got the next word right, there would be co-champions, since there wouldn't be enough words left to determine a sole winner.

Then Gokul was asked to spell nunatak, and he rattled it off without even asking for a definition (it's an Eskimo word for a hill or mountain completely surrounded by glacial ice, if you must know). And just like that, we had co-champions again. It was a fitting ending, since Vanya and Gokul seemed like unstoppable forces through the whole competition.

If you want to relive all the action from the semifinal and final rounds, we've compiled all my live-tweeting from the @VocabularyCom Twitter account on Storify. We also have word lists from the preliminaries (Round 2 and Round 3), the semifinals, and the finals. You can quiz yourself on the lists using "spelling bee" mode and see how you measure up against these impressive young minds.


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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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