2006 National Spelling Bee
Bill Long 6/1/06
Sbagliando si impara ("By making mistakes, one learns")
The annual spelling bee (now just having completed its 79th year) is now a staple in the American entertainment circuit. Several years ago it was not even on television; a few years ago it was only on ESPN; now it is covered by a major network in prime time. It is a Jeopardy-sort of game, with precocious kids no older than 13 spelling words that you will, most likely, only see and hear on the screen this one time in your life. Ever since the film "Spellbound" came out about 5 years ago and "Putnam County Spelling Bee" debuted on Broadway a short time ago, spelling has caught fire in America. Indeed, a few months ago I received an email from a Columbia University graduate student doing her master's thesis on aspects of contemporary American culture in which she mentioned that spelling bees were all the rage in Manhattan in 2006. "Why have they become so popular among all ages?" she wanted to know. The purpose of this essay is not to answer that question, though I have a lot to say about it. Rather, I want to comment on the last 10 or so rounds of this year's bee by making reference both to words and to spellers.
A Suggestion for Improvement--Let them Make One Mistake
I'll begin with what comes most naturally for me--suggestions about how to make something better. In order to make the spelling bee "better" one must first be clear on the goal of the bee. That I say this means that there might be some debate, viewing the current format, as to what the goal really is. To me the goal should be straightforward--to try to determine, in as accurate a method as possible, the "best" speller in the English speaking world under 14. But no one who is under 14 could possibly know all the words (or be able to recall them all) in the Webster's Unabridged. Thus, there is a good chance that the very best spellers might get a word that they really haven't had a chance to master. As we see, it really doesn't take many rounds after the written round [the field is whittled down from more than 250 to about a dozen or so through a written spelling test] to knock them all out (except the winner). When you consider that there are probably 1,000,000 or so words in the dictionary, it really only takes about 300 or so well placed words to eliminate the field. Thus, if you happen to get one of the "surd words," as I call them, early in the oral competition, you are out, even if you are the "best."
Indeed, that is what happened this year, as two of the young men of Indian origin (who do exceptionally well at these bees), who happened to be the top "seeds," were eliminated, the latter with a word that appears in the unabridged for no really good reason (Heiligenschein) since it is German through and through. Indeed, heiligenschein, the glow around the shadow of a person's head seen usually in the morning, doesn't even appear in the OED. The earliest reference I found to it in English was from a book review in the mid-1950s, and in that article the word was put in quotation marks, as if the author knew he was bringing a foreign word into English. As it was, the only reason I got the word correct was that I had lived and studied in Germany for more than a year.
While on the subject of borrowed words, I think a far more useful borrowed word is sprezzatura, which appears in the OED but is absent from the Unabridged, and means and "ease of manner, studied carelessness; the appearance of acting or being done without effort." The word was popularized by Castiglione in his Renaissance-era Book of the Courtier, and has captured the imagination of many since then. Drop heiligenschein and add sprezzatura.
But that really isn't my suggestion. My suggestion is that everyone gets to miss a word in the oral competition without being eliminated. This, actually, would bring out the best spellers because though it is likely that the best speller will miss a word, it isn't nearly as likely that s/he will miss two in the final rounds. Having the spellers eliminated on the first word emphasizes the "luck" or "crap shoot" nature of the competition. It wouldn't take that much longer to allow one miss, and it would, actually, increase the sense of competition between spellers. It does takes the pressure off for spellers to know that they can miss one word. In the senior bee, in which I participate, we are allowed to miss two in the oral rounds (i.e., the third miss eliminates you). This is a far more humane system than the current single miss rule.
To The 2006 Bee
As with several previous bees, I found the words becoming progressively easier for me as the rounds went on. Indeed, the winning word, ursprache, which also isn't an English word (it was first used in English in 1908), is a trivially easy German word. Every third grader in Germany would know it [It would be written Ursprache in German].
But it was actually fairly simple German words which tripped up two of the best spellers in the field. Rajiv Tarigopula slipped on heiligenschein, as mentioned, and Finola Hackett, the Canadian champion and eventual 2nd place winner, slipped on the straightforward German word weltschmerz (she began it with a "v"). To show the chancy nature of the current bee, Finola kept getting words derived from the French language (which she eagerly studies in school), and got all these words correct, only to slip on a simple German word. Maybe the moral of the story is that we should teach more German in this country to younger people...
I need one more essay to run through some of the words.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long