Seattle Spelling Bee Redivivus
Bill Long 11/15/08
Nov. 3, 2008 at Jillian's at Westlake Ave. N.
I didn't attend this month's Seattle Spelling Bee but my friend Randy Hilfman decided to go, placing 2nd, and then he kindly informed me of the words for that Bee. Portland continues its weekly Bee at the Mississippi Pizza Pub, but the words aren't as daunting as in the revived Seattle Bee. Here are the words for Nov. 3 in Seattle. Unlike the Portland Bee, which is all oral, the Seattle Bee utilizes a 40-word written test to weed out all but the top 12 spellers, who then compete on a one-miss basis until one person is left. There were four oral rounds, with 28 words in these rounds. Thus, 68 words were used, many of which are fascinating or new for almost anyone. Four of the words in the written round were types of dog (dachshund, rottweiler, dalmatian, chihuahua), four were colors (amaranth, chartreuse, cerulean, fuchsia), four are derived from law (affidavit, adjudication, acquitttal, misdemeanor) and four were relatively simple political science terms (inauguration, consensus, canvassing, constituency). Of the 52 remaining words, 15 call for mention either because they are difficult to spell or interesting to know. I will say a brief word about these:
borak, aboma, serra, palliyan, chiffonade, vakass, gramercy, cahot, flurazepam, idunit, ratel, louvar, caimitillo, teetotum, stremmatograph.
1. Borak is not the name of a movie starring Sasha Baron-Cohen. Rather, it is "Down-Under" slang for "nonsense, humbug; chaff, banter." The phrase "to poke (the) borak" means "to make or poke fun." This Aboriginal word was first taken over into English in 1845: "Borack, gammon, nonsense." Gammon, by the way, goes back to the early 18th century and is thieves' slang for "talk" or "chatter." Using borak, from 1904: "One of the crowd was poking borak and said something pretty bad to him at the beginning."
2. Aboma is not the name of our President-elect written by a dyslexic person. Rather it is a species of serpent, which the OED calls Epicratis Cenchria (though every online reference I have seen calls it Epicrates cenchria--so, a rare OED mistake) from the morasses and fens of South America. Here is a great picture of this South American boa.
3. Serra is not only the name of the founding priest of many of the CA missions, but, for purposes of the Bee, is a fish which lives off the coast of CA (Alepisaurus serra) or a fabulous marine monster. The "serra" part means "serrated" or "saw-like." A secondary definition of serra is a mountain ridge (perhaps always saw-like to the eye).
4. Gramercy is an abbreviation for grand merci or "great thanks." Scott used the word in Ivanhoe: "Gramercy for thy caution." One can also use it indirectly with a dative or indirect object: "Gra'mercy to their Goodness."
5. Flurazepam looks like and tastes like a drug. Actually, it is a long-acting benzodiazepine with sedative properties widely prescribed as a hypnotic. A benzodiazepine is a tranquilizer. The word only originated in 1968, but by 1981 we have this: "In 1976 approximately one-half of all prescriptions for hypnotic agents filled in American retail pharmacies were for flurazepam." Thus, it is a popular sleeping pill.
6. One of the most fascinating words in this list for me was vakass. I hadn't heard the word previously, and surely would have misspelled it, but it would be as familiar as his name to my friend Dr. Abraham Terian. What is a vakass? The OED doesn't have it, but the Century has a nice long entry on it: "In the Armenian Church, a eucharistic vestment, semicircular in shape and usually of metal, having a breastplate attached to it, on which are the names, heads or figures of the twelve apostles." It is also known as the ephod, which is the Jewish term for a high priest's garment. One other source said that it looked similar to the amice, for which there are many photos online.
Oops. A one or two word digression is in order. While vagabondizing through the "va's" in the Century, I came across vadimony and vadium. The word "vas" is Scots for "bail, surety," and so vadimony was "in old law," a bond or pledge to appear before a judge on a fixed day. Vadium means the same thing.
7. Idunit is just the first person singular confessional account. Nice word.
8. A louvar is a perciform (perch-shaped) fish, the only living species in the genus Luvarus. Here is a nice article, with picture, of this very long (up to 6.5 feet) fish. This fish is found in "all Mexican waters"--so it is familiar to many people on earth...
9. A stremmatograph is "an instrument for measuring longitudinal stress in rails as trains pass." Several online references mention it as the "Dudley Stremmatograph,' because it was invented by Plimmon (ever hear that name?) Henry Dudley late in the 19th century. Here are some actual graphs that depict the results of early tests made by Dr. Dudley with his stremmatograph. One wonders why the OED doesn't have the word...
10. Ratel might be confusing because the word sounds like so many other words, but it refers to the honey badger, Mellivora capensis, of the family Mustelidae. It is native to Africa and is distinguished by a light grey coat on the back, with black color elsewhere. Here is an outstanding picture of this unusually colored animal, with description of some of its characteristics.
11. Chiffonade actually appears as chiffonnade in the OED (that is its first attested spelling in English), but now the single "n" is much more popular. From 1961: "in cooking, all plants..which are cut into fine strips or ribbons are denoted by this term. It is more especially used to denote a mixture of sorrel and lettuce... Most of the chiffonnades are used as a garnish for clear or thick soups."
12. Let's conclude this essay (leaving three words for another essay) with teetotum. Here is Michael Quinion's typical clearly expressed essay on the concept. It is a spinning top, with a four-sided disk or die having an inital letter inscripted on each of its sides. Well, this is too complex. In keeping with my commitment to use artistic representations that introduce big words (such as sauterelle, kalong, ferronniere, diseuse, saltimbanque), I link the painting of "Child with a Teetotum," by Jean Baptiste Chardin (1738). Larger pictures of this spinning top are here. The Latin words standing behind the "T, A, D, and N" on the sides are totum (take everything from the pot); aufer (take one stake) depone (leave one stake), nihil (do nothing). Well, more could be said about this childhood toy--as about almost everything else discussed in this essay, but I will leave it here for tonight.