A way with words…

Brian Ferry

Congrats to all the competitors.

Being knocked out of the Warren County Spelling Bee is not a shameful thing.

Like any competition with an eventual champion — almost every competitor loses their last game — or, in this case, misspells their last word.

Only one speller out of the original 15 — all champions from their grades and schools — was left standing after 11 rounds of spelling.

No shame there.

And you know what? The words were hard.

I was the moderator at the county-wide bee again this year. The Times Observer sponsors the event. Moderator is a good job for someone who enjoys words. I like it.

I don’t know if I was ever in a spelling bee in school. That was a long time ago. I was good at spelling. I probably would have done well.

Back then, spelling mattered.

As I explained to the audience, spelling is still a valuable thing in an era of instant spell-checkers and, worse, texting people who don’t care. Good spelling looks good. (Ask the people that call me when I make an error.) You have to have some kind of starting point and you might not have the time or tech handy to correct your mistakes.

The folks that designed the word list intended the words to increase in difficulty. I read them in order, starting at 70. There were words I did not read, but I made those decisions weeks in advance and shared the list with my fellow judges. They weren’t particularly difficult or simple words, I just didn’t like them. ‘Fiddle-faddle’ was one of those. ‘Fiddle-faddle’? Seriously?

The words did indeed grow increasingly difficult.

‘Bacon’ was 70. ‘Writhing’ was 146 and 224 was ‘tergiversation.’ Whoa.

Students do not have to correctly note capitalization and punctuation. So, they would not have to put the hyphen in fiddle-faddle. (Fiddle-faddle. Just stupid.)

One of the students in the competition included the accent on the ‘e’ in cliches (which I can’t event put into type). That was unnecessary and I am unable to assign bonus points, but kudos.

Starting at number 70 on the list, I was familiar with all the words until 142 — ‘garret.’ To the best of my knowledge, I had not run into that word before this competition.

I — an adult who makes his living writing words — would have misspelled it.

It knocked out one of the contestants.

The root word ‘sagacious’ is familiar enough, but ‘sagacity,’ at 171, is not one I had thought of. Maybe I get it right.

It also knocked out a competitor.

There are certain questions the spellers can ask — repeat the word, give the definition, part of speech, or language of origin, or use it in a sentence. Asking for the root word is not something they can do. Even if I decided to allow that, I don’t have the answers printed in front of me, so I might make it worse.

I encouraged the students to ask questions. For the first time in two years as moderator and another as a judge, one of the students asked for a word’s language of origin. It was a simple word and he did it just to humor me, but I appreciated that. I was asked for an alternate definition once. I didn’t have one. The spelling bee folks give one part of speech and one definition that matches it for each word.

‘Chilblains’ was 174. Never heard that one. Language of origin — “two originally English elements” — wouldn’t have helped one bit.

A competitor got within one letter.

There were ‘ible’ words and ‘able’ words. I could have missed one like that. One student did.

Most likely, I would have just bungled one that I’ve spelled a thousand times while typing and never out loud. At least one student started spelling, knew he had skipped a letter and, according to the rules, couldn’t go back and fix it.

Then, word 188 — ‘treacle.’ I’m not confident I’ve never seen that word. A molasses-based syrup kinda sounds like a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ word, so I may have read it. But I wouldn’t know how to spell it.

The spelling bee champion got that one right.

If the students in the spelling bee are any sign, there is hope for spelling in the text era, at least in Warren County.

To the competitors, alternates, and students in general who can spell — whether you can just remember how words are spelled or you can work them out from their languages of origin, I salute your ability to spell.

Brian Ferry is a reporter with the Times Observer. He does not need spell-check.

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