I won the National Adult Spelling Bee!

In 2009, I signed up for the National Adult Spelling Bee (in Long Beach), and I managed to come in second place. It was great fun! I went back in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Each time I did reasonably well, but I never quite managed to vault into the #1 position.

Until this year.

This year I didn’t plan to go to the spelling bee at all. I had plans to take some friends flying. But the weather turned bad for flying, so our sightseeing trip was deferred, and I found myself with just enough free time to head down to Long Beach for the Bee. I hadn’t prepared! I hadn’t studied! But I went anyway!

I then spelled many words, in round after round:

  1. budget
  2. waiver
  3. genealogy
  4. xenophobia
  5. centime
  6. didactic
  7. reconnaissance
  8. glucosamine
  9. foppery
  10. funambulist – a wire-walker (tightrope-walker)
  11. specious
  12. chilblains
  13. dermatophyte
  14. glissade
  15. cathect – to invest energy in
  16. accrete

and at the end, it was down to two of us, and then Anne misspelled “splith”, and my next word was “accrete”, and it was a home run! What a thrill!

And the best part? The Bee gives you $500 for yourself plus $500 for the charity of your choice. So the very next day, I walked into the Monrovia Public Library and presented them with the check – and oh, the look on the librarian’s face! It was like winning a second time all over again.

That’s not what I meant. Or is it?

You may have encountered this great example of acyrologia:

(I could not find an original source for the image, unfortunately!)

“Acyrologia” is kind of hard to pronounce. It is also rather obscure. A search in the online Webster’s dictionary does not find it! The link above to a definition takes you to a dictionary of rhetoric (Silva Rhetoricae, the Forest of Rhetoric). It defines acyrologia as “An incorrect use of words, especially the use of words that sound alike but are far in meaning from the speaker’s intentions.” Sometimes these things slip out (malapropism) and sometimes they are done on purpose (puns, the practice of which is known as paranomasia). I’d guess that Spoonerisms are another kind of acryologia.

I was amused to find that the Silva Rhetoricae characterizes some of its terms by their *ethos* (“persuasive appeal of one’s character”). For example, “Acyrologia erodes the ethos of the speaker, for it portrays his/her ignorance.” It also rates them by style: “Using acyrologia reflects poor diction (word choice), thus demonstrating a low level of style.”

There is also cacozelia, in which you use improper or overly erudite words to impress your audience or to make things sound worse than they are. The Silva Rhetoricae cites an example from Seneca: “This is an adultery against the state, to have sex under the trophies of Miltiades.” Adultery. Really?

Do you have any favorite examples of acyrologisms?

Back to the bee

Today I made my annual pilgrimage to the Adult Spelling Bee in Long Beach. I saw several familiar faces amongst the other competitors as I climbed onto the hot, stuffy stage and prepared to do battle with the dictionary.

The first four rounds were pretty approachable:

  1. fusty
  2. nimrod
  3. solstice
  4. homily

On the 5th round, I was given “hawkshaw,” a word I’d never heard before. I asked for a definition and was told, “a detective.” Hmm. Was it “hockshaw” or “hawkshaw”? I asked for the language of origin and got “U.S. slang.” That clinched it. I figured “hawk” (hunt) was a more likely metaphor for a detective than “hock” (sell) and went with “hawkshaw.” And it was right!

(It turns out that hawkshaw is a reference to a comic strip character named Hawkshaw the Detective.)

On the 6th round, I got “paludal.” Yeah, if you’ve heard of this word before, kudos to you! The definition is “of or relating to a swamp; marshy.” I hesitated. Was it “pa-” or “pe-“? “Pelagic” is a word that refers to the ocean, which is watery. Was that close enough to marshy? What would a “pal-” prefix mean?

I ended up going for “palludal,” which was close, but no cigar. Later I learned that “palus” is Latin for “marsh.” Well, now I know!

That round was quite brutal, and by going out at that point I tied for 6th place with many other spellers (the same place as last year!). Some interesting and challenging words from the remaining rounds (an asterisk means I would have misspelled it) were:

  • antimacassar
  • primeval
  • tetchy
  • sanguine
  • prurient
  • *maquillage
  • costive
  • reify
  • turpitude
  • basenji
  • degust
  • phalanx
  • *divagate
  • prevenient
  • contumacious — the winning word!

I’m already looking forward to next year. :)

Once more unto the b-r-e-a-c-h

Today I got to once again match my orthographic wits against 30 other people in the Adult Spelling Bee in Long Beach, CA. Here are the first seven words I was given to spell:

  1. extradite
  2. notch
  3. rescind
  4. meticulous
  5. gossamer
  6. tranquil
  7. succinct

At this point, we were almost 1.5 hours in. The organizers did a headcount, found that we had 16 people left, and decided that they needed to take it up a notch to whittle more down. So we jumped into a much harder word list, and people started dropping like flies.

The spellers before me were given “quiescence,” “absinthe,” “chicanery,” “babushka,” and “colcannon.” I would have been okay with any of those (I think).

I was given “locofoco.” My reaction: ?!?!?!! The audience: ?!?!?!

I asked for a definition and got: “a member of a radical group of New York Democrats organized in 1835 in opposition to the regular party organization.” You recognized that, right?

I asked for the language of origin and got “probably Latin.”

So I went ahead and guessed. And got it right (!).

The next round, I was giving “atrabilious.” The definition was something about being inclined to anger (as I recall), although now when I look it up, I get “given to or marked by melancholy.” At any rate, I spelled it as “atribilious” and with that, my 2013 bee ended. Done in by a schwa!

In the end, I tied for 6th place. My track record at this bee has been: 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place, so linear regression predicted 5th. I guess I slightly underperformed. :)

I enjoyed sitting through the rest of the competition, which got very fierce and crazy indeed near the end. Final words included (starred words are ones I would have missed):

  • *chiropteran
  • flivver
  • empyrean
  • *misoneism
  • *callipygian
  • nescience
  • pinyin
  • pyrrhic
  • nonpareil
  • cyrillic
  • hafnium
  • *auscultation
  • lamia
  • demarche
  • *weisenheimer
  • legerdemain
  • *videlicet
  • seriatim
  • *imprimis
  • etesian
  • pneuma
  • flocculate
  • syncretic
  • interrobang
  • primogeniture
  • espiegle
  • mimesis
  • interdict
  • *crwth ?!?!
  • *gregarine
  • gnomic
  • obloquy
  • *argillaceous
  • farrago
  • *dengue
  • *moitie
  • *polysyndeton
  • *kluge
  • denouement
  • maquette
  • panegyric
  • festinate
  • tourbillion

And finally, Jim Sherry from Alabama spelled the winning word, “quincunx.” It was a great victory! And especially since he’d come from so far away, and had been saying before the Bee that Delta lost his luggage, so it had been a rough trip so far. Now he’s the champ! :)

What’s the “case” in upper and lower case?

If I thought about it at all, I assumed that upper case and lower case were just two different cases (options) for big, or small, letters. You might therefore assume that these terms have been with us since the invention of writing, or at least writing in two sizes.

Not so!

These terms came into being with the invention of moveable type and the printing press (1450 A.D.). Typesetters would pick letters from a large case organized by letter. And — you guessed it — capital letters were in the “upper case” and the rest were in the “lower case.” The terms referred to their physical location, which quickly became convention, because then a typesetter from one press could quickly adapt to another press. Yet now the terms are so generic that they are used even in handwriting instruction. The printing press’s influence echoes down the ages!

Notice the upper-case letters had slots of equal size, while the lower-case letters (more often used) had slots proportional to their frequency of use (in English). This is what you’d need when setting a single line of type.


There were already existing terms for the two cases. Capital letters were referred to as “majuscules” and small letters were “minuscules.” But such was printing’s influence that the jargon of the trade has spread out to general use. Also, scripts that have two sizes, like this, are referred to as “bicameral” scripts (just like bicameral government!).

I learned about this in “The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800” by Febvre and Martin, which I am reading for a library school course on the history of books and libraries. This book contains other interesting tidbits, like the fact that once the printing press got going, it was very productive; skilled teams could produce a sheet every 20 seconds. Further, there’s a sordid and fascinating story behind Gutenberg and his associates Fust and Schoeffer, who took over his printing press just as he was finalizing the process, because Gutenberg defaulted on a loan; as a result, none of the books printed with his press bear his name as the publisher, although the history books have given his name full credit.

Nowadays even fonts displayed digitally continue the use of “upper” and “lower” case to distinguish these two components of the English script. The very term “font” is also an echo of early printing press technology developments, as it comes from “fondue” which means something that has been melted; early fonts were cast in metal at a type foundry. Can we imagine “tweet” or “text” or “facebook” persisting in our vocabulary for a similar span of more than 500 years?

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