High on words

Last Sunday found me once again on stage to spell under the spotlight. This was my third National Adult Spelling Bee, and I was surprised to discover that it felt more like a reunion than a competition. Many of the spellers greeted me by name, and I enjoyed seeing so many familiar faces. Vicky was there wearing a custom necklace with a Scrabble V tile for a pendant. Janice was back with her trademark air-spelling and joyful exuberance. I guess once you get started, it’s easy to get hooked!

This year about 30 spellers assembled on the stage, and the rounds began. I spelled the following words:

  1. rockabilly
  2. posse
  3. jeopardy (when I sat down, my seatmate whispered that I’d forgotten the exclamation mark)
  4. recuse
  5. abridged
  6. stellar
  7. conundrum
  8. imbricate
  9. gavotte
  10. imbrue: a new one on me! It means “to soil or stain.” I guessed… correctly.
  11. pelagic: I knew my Master’s in Geology would come in handy someday (that’s where I learned this word).
  12. esemplastic: another new one, meaning “shaping or having the power to shape disparate things into a unified whole.” Again, I guessed… correctly.

At this point we were down to five contestants. And then I was given “asceticism” to spell. I rolled the word around in my head for a moment to get it right, then started spelling. I was so focused on getting the “asc” part right that — alack! — I lost a syllable along the way. I spelled “a-s-c-e-t-i-s-m” and I was out, placing 4th (since two of the remaining spellers tied for third).

Photo by Ralph Millero

The final two rounds were amusing. We were down to two spellers. Michael Petrina, who comes all the way from Virginia (almost) every year for this event, was given “dossier” to spell, which he did. Patricia Knatz was then given “limen,” which means “a threshold of a physiological or psychological response.” She misspelled it, and then Michael was given “flageolet” (!! it’s “a woodwind musical instrument”). He laughed and said that he’d gotten that word at a previous bee and missed it! So, happily, he got it right this time, and walked away with first place (he also won in 2009. He’s a really great speller!).

I don’t know about other spelling bees, but I was really struck here by how friendly everyone was. One doesn’t applaud after each correctly spelled word, but instead on those moments when someone is spelled out. This applause was always very genuine, and often handshakes were extended between contestants. It’s a slightly weird feeling, sitting in a group where all the spelling antennae are so sensitized that you can feel the collective indrawn breath when a word is misspelled, and the collective nod of satisfaction when a word is spelled correctly. And yet it was also a feeling of being with “your” people—people who *feel* the rightness or wrongness of orthography. The focus was so intense that I started feeling simultaneously sort of floaty but also very, very present. Everything was crowded out but the words. You can’t help but spell along in your head for everyone else’s words. That’s two solid hours of words and letters and words. Whew!

I’m certain I’ll be back next year, ready to pit myself against the dictionary once more. I love it that spelling bees aren’t just for kids!

1 Comment

  1. David said,

    April 23, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    I know “flageolet” from a different context, which would bring in another one of your talents: it’s what in English is called “harmonics” as a technique on the violin (or other string instruments). You’ll get there soon enough, if you haven’t already.

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