Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

It's Spelling Bee Time Again!

The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee kicks off today, and every year there seems to be more and more public attention paid to this preeminent spectacle of word-nerdery. As in the past two years, tomorrow's semifinal and final rounds are being broadcast live on national television (semifinals on ESPN from 11 am to 2 pm, finals on ABC from 8 to 10 pm). It's always exciting to see middle-schoolers battle it out for the spelling crown, in a competition rife with dramatic "thrill of victory" and "agony of defeat" moments (most memorably depicted in the suspenseful documentary Spellbound). Adults can only marvel at the preternatural abilities of the young finalists to spell super-obscure words that most of us have seldom — if ever — come across. Where do they get those words, anyway?

Scripps relies on the 2800-page Webster's Third New International Dictionary as the authoritative source for spelling bee words, and as you'd expect from a massive unabridged dictionary, some of the words are extremely rare. The top spelling bee contenders memorize long word lists derived from the Third New International, but rote memorization will only get you so far. One key is to memorize combining forms: all the prefixes and suffixes (mostly from Latin and Greek) that tend to form the building blocks of longer words. That way an unfamiliar term can often be broken down into its components. On the Spelling Bee website, Merriam-Webster has provided a comprehensive list of prefixes and suffixes as a study aid for spellers in training.

Knowing your classical combining forms might help in the early rounds of the competition, but the selection of words in the final rounds usually defies any easy analysis. That's when they choose the very hardest words to spell, which are often relatively recent borrowings from foreign languages. So the kids who hope to make it to the finals must be savvy enough to know something of the spelling conventions of major world languages and how words from those languages get adapted in spoken and written English.

In 2005, for instance, the winning contestant knew how to spell appoggiatura, an Italian word referring to a type of musical embellishment. It comes from the Italian verb appoggiare, meaning "to lean upon." Another embellishing musical note with a difficult Italian name is acciaccatura, from the verb acciaccare, meaning "to crush." The following year the second-place competitor got tripped up on a German spelling: she spelled Weltschmerz ("sadness on thinking about the evils of the world") with an initial v instead of a w. And last year featured runners-up who erred in spelling medical words derived from Greek: coryza (inflammation of the mucous membrane) and aniseikonia (a type of visual defect).

This year you can expect to hear more such tricky foreignisms when the best of the best square off in the closing rounds. We here at the Visual Thesaurus will be watching anxiously, rooting on these perspicacious prodigies of lexical learning. Stay tuned next week for our recap of the crowning moment. In the meantime, sharpen your wits with our list of 100 words that have appeared frequently in past spelling bees, culled from the Bee's own consolidated list of more than 23,000 words.

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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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