Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Beware the Colophon! The Return of the Literary Spelling Bee

For the second year in a row, the Visual Thesaurus helped out the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses with its annual Spelling Bee to support the work of independent literary publishers. Once again, the VT supplied the words that challenged some of the leading lights of the New York publishing world.

HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham was the returning champion at last night's event, and his hardy challengers were: Ken Davis (Don't Know Much About...), Nancy Franklin (The New Yorker), James Frey (Bright Shining Morning), Ben Greenman (Please Step Back, The New Yorker), Tayari Jones (The Untelling), Maira Kalman (New York Times; The Principles of Uncertainty), Alex Kuczynski (Beauty Junkies), Rosalind Kilkenny McLymont (Africa: Strictly Business The Steady March to Prosperity), Victor LaValle (Big Machine), Michael Musto (La Dolce Musto, The Village Voice), Sara Nelson (So Many Books, So Little Time), Francine Prose (Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife), Lucinda Rosenfeld (I'm So Happy for You: A Novel about Best Friends), and Sally Singer (Vogue).

As with last year's competition, the words presented by the judge for the spelling bee, Oxford English Dictionary editor at large Jesse Sheidlower, were selected from the results of the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. With tens of thousands of spellers playing millions of words in the VT Bee, we can accurately rate words by their difficulty based on our voluminous player data.

The ranks of the spellers thinned quickly, with four eliminated in the first round (Davis, Frey, Kalman, and Musto). The second round brought an early shocker, with defending champ Burnham (along with Franklin) erring on sacrilegious, a stumper that had appeared in last year's Bee as well. Then castellated knocked out McLymont and Nelson, and phlebotomize snagged Rosenfeld. That left six competitors in the third round, quickly pared to four after Jones went out on hawthorn and LaValle on clairvoyance.

The four survivors — Greenman, Kuczynski, Prose, and Singer — battled it out for three more rounds, before the appearance of the dreaded colophon — a word well-suited to the crowd, meaning "a publisher's emblem printed in a book (usually on the title page)." Like sacrilegious, colophon was a word that had brought down spellers in the past, and once again it spared no prisoners. Kuczynski, Prose, and Singer all misspelled it, with only Greenman left standing. And so Greenman donned the funny tinfoil crown, bringing an end to an entertaining evening for a good cause.

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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:

Tuesday October 27th 2009, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Stephen D. (Hadley, MA)
It truly astonishes me that they would miss a word like "colophon." Ah well, that's why we editors get work.
Tuesday October 27th 2009, 3:37 PM
Comment by: mac
i was somewhat intimidated- long distance- by the prospect of a spelling bee.
as a kid, my spelling was much superior to the present day, given what tidbits i'm asked to masticate now.

a coven of literati. was there any discussion of the offerings or was it a straight tyrannical bee?
reading on, i discovered i- were i there- would make it past the first round. i think.
feeling a bit more secure, i wondered what further heights i might ascend.
more things, Hotatio.
mac in manhattan
Tuesday October 27th 2009, 3:39 PM
Comment by: mac
Who is this guy, Hotatio?
should have worn the spex.
Tuesday October 27th 2009, 9:15 PM
Comment by: Steve L (Narberth, PA)
Would a book without such an emblem be "acolophonic?"
Wednesday November 4th 2009, 5:30 PM
Comment by: ultraminu (Meriden, CT)
seriously, they would forget how to say hawthorn. i can learn it once and still spell after, probably a whole month. it struck me dumbfounded when i read this article. just repeat it in your head again and again until you're sure it has to be right

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Last year the Visual Thesaurus began supplying words for the CLMP Bee.
Community Spelling Bees allow users to generate their own quizzes.
How the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee helps one champion speller.