Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The VT Helps Out A Literary Bee

Last night, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses held its fifth annual Spelling Bee in support of its non-profit efforts to help out independent literary publishers. The CLMP always attracts an all-star cast of spellers from the New York book world. This time around, the Visual Thesaurus joined forces with the CLMP Bee, supplying the words to stump the cream of the literary crop.

It was a sold-out event at the Diane von Furstenberg Studio in New York's Meatpacking District. Bob Morris, who writes for the Style Section of the New York Times emceed, warming up the crowd with spelling jokes before introducing this year's fourteen competitors: Jonathan Adler (Top Design), Jonathan Burnham (Publisher, HarperCollins) David Carr (The Night of the Gun), Michael Cunningham (Specimen Days), David Gates (The Wonders of the Invisible World), Brooke Geahan (Founder, Accompanied Literary Society), Brad Gooch (Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor), Heidi Julavits (The Uses of Enchantment), Wayne Koestenbaum (Hotel Theory), Honor Moore (The Bishop's Daughter), Michael Musto (La Dolce Musto, Village Voice) Sara Nelson (Editor-in-Chief, Publisher's Weekly), Robert Sietsema (Restaurant Critic, Village Voice), Judith Thurman (Cleopatra's Nose), and Meg Wolitzer (The Position). Wolitzer was the defending champ, going up against the new competition to defend her lovely aluminum foil crown.

As in past years, the judge for the event was Oxford English Dictionary editor at large Jesse Sheidlower. Before announcing the rules, he explained that the words used in the competition were culled from the results of the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee. Thanks to thousands of spellers who have played the VT Bee, we now have voluminous data ranking words by their difficulty. The CLMP Bee contestants got to face increasingly harder words, just as players in the VT Bee try to climb to the top of the spelling heap.

In keeping with the stylish surroundings, early rounds included many words from the world of fashion, like herringbone, jodhpurs, and haberdasher. Eyelet and passementerie proved particularly difficult, knocking off two competitors each before getting spelled correctly.

In the final round, Adler, Koestenbaum, Nelson, Thurman, and defending champion Wolitzer were the last spellers remaining. Then Koestenbaum got tripped up by upsilon and Thurman by sacrilegious. The remaining three continued to battle it out, conquering such toughies as abseil, colophon, kirsch, subaqueous, and recidivism. Wolitzer lost her chance to maintain her crown by forgetting that vermilion has one l and not two. That left Nelson of Publisher's Weekly and Burnham of HarperCollins in a battle of publishing giants. But Nelson erred on astigmatism, leaving Burnham as the last speller standing. Wolitzer relinquished the aluminum crown to Burnham, bringing an end to a rollicking night of (mostly) superb spelling.

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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.

We've been making significant improvements to the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee.
VT Bee @ OUP
Singing the praises of the Visual Thesaurus Bee on the blog of Oxford University Press.
Our postmortem of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee.