1997 Scripps Howard Spelling Bee II
Bill Long 12/26/06
Losing Oneself in the Words
One of the tension-producing issues for the 1997 Bee was the fact that the final two spellers, Rebecca Sealfon (NY) and Prem Murthy Trivedi (NJ) faced each other for forty minutes before Prem stumbled on cortile, a relatively simple Italian-derived word meaning a courtyard. In fact, both had missed a word in the same round previously, which must have been nerve-wracking, and thus they continued with the duel. Prem missed analemma, which is a sort of figure eight made by tracing the sun's daily movement over 24-hours from a fixed point on the earth, while Rebeccas missed dulcinea--a term known to any who has read even portions of Cervantes' Don Quixote. But let's begin with some early round words which people missed, and then review the list of the last 50 or so words.
Five words that caused earlier contestants to stumble were hebetude, plangorous, ginglymus, myrmecologist, phonasthenia. The Bee seems to have a "pro-Classical Languages" bent, and all these are derived from Greek or Latin. Hebetude is the condition of being dull, blunt or obtuse. It was first attested in English in 1621: "Motion as well as health..drives away all lassitude, hebetude, and indisposition." I love Ezra Pound's use of the term in 1918: "There is something in his [i.e., Jules Romains's] work. It is not the hebetude of a lignified cerebrum." Lignifed, of course, comes from "wooden" or "woody." Isn't that phrase--the "hebetude of a lignified cerebrum" now just etched into your consciousness?
Well, one down. A million (or so it seems) to go. Plangorous is derived from the same word that gives us plangent, a very useful word and known by our best writers. Plangent can mean to make a beating or crashing sound but its more usual meaning was a mournful, plaintive or lamenting sound. Thus, something plangorous is something resonantly mournful or full of lamentation. Urquhart's translation of Rabelais has: "The grievously plangorous howling and lowing of Devils." To me a plangorous wailing is a little less shrill than a ululation, but it is nice to have "degrees of wailing" in your head, don't you think?
A third word that tripped up a contestant was the difficult ginglymus. It is simply a transliteration of the Greek word meaning "hinge," and it is, appropriately, a hinge joint. The OED has it: "a diarthrodial joint having some likeness to a hinge, in that its motion is only in two directions.." The most familiar of these is the connection between ulna and humerus (i.e., the elbow). Others have pointed to the ankle or knee as gingylmus joints. I found it interesting that one of the earlier authors who seemed to like the word was William Paley, whose 1802 Natural Theology argued for the existence of God from the "orderliness" of the natural world. He says: "Another no less important joint, and that also of the ginglymus sort, is the ankle." I am not familiar enough with Paley's work to know if he would argue that our ginglymatic (my own word) structure is an argument for the existence of God. Normally the word today is used as an adjective, with "joint" following, or as a substantive.
Another contestant missed myrmecologist, a person who studies ants. If you read Homer's Iliad you run immediately into the Myrmidons, warriors commanded by Achilles. They got their names either because of their (ant-like) numerousness or, more likely, their industry. Then, someone missed phonasthenia, a word not listed in the OED but one that makes easy sense if you know your Greek roots. "Phono" has to do with the voice and "asthenia" refers to weakness; therefore, phonasthenia is hoarseness or raspiness of voice. The OED attests asthenia, asthenic and asthenical, though they probably aren't on anyone's "top 100" list of words to be mastered in 2007. Finally, I think I saw that another word was misspelled but, in fact, if this word appeared, someone ought to be shot. The word was pergelisol. It means "continually-frozen ground," and it was invented in 1946 to supply a perceived lack in the language caused by the word "permafrost." See if you can understand the original attestation, when the word was invented:
"It is impossible to make a verb or a verbal noun from 'permafrost' as 'permafrosting' and 'permafrosted' imply that a permanent surface or coating has been applied...Further, the term cannot be easily converted into other European languages. These various objects can be met by a new term...Such a word is 'pergelisol.'"
Permafrost, to express the notion of "permanently frozen ground" was only invented in 1943; it was expressly introduced because "permanently frozen ground" was too long and cumbersome. I actually don't think we need the word pergelisol. We can sink that baby back into the frozen earth which gave it birth. But, there it is. What can you say?
Look at this. I was going to introduce 55 or so final-round words in this essay, but I so got caught up in the five or six earlier ones that people missed. How do I feel about it? Well, as the vulture said to his neighbor after eating an indigestible meal, "I feel pterrible." I guess I will just have to write one more, or more than one more, on the 1997 Bee.