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.