‘Do you know how to spell…?’
I once heard the following dialogue…
“Do you know how to spell ‘legitimately’?”
“It’s the only way I know how to spell.”
At the Warren County School District Spelling Bee, the pressure is on the young people trying to spell the words.
On Thursday, they made it look pretty easy. The 13 spellers were confident. They spoke clearly. They absolutely nailed 40 words in a row.
They didn’t show the nerves I expected.
As pronouncer, I tried to live up to that example.
Last year, I was a judge.
That was a good gig.
Sit. Watch. Listen. Check the paper in front of me. Repeat.
This year, I was the moderator — or pronouncer, according to Scripps — with a lot more to do and a lot more public and significant ways to foul up.
And, I had to be the one that said, “That is incorrect.”
That was tough. I had to say it 13 times — there was one tie to settle, so one speller was eliminated twice.
I had to ‘incorrect’ one speller who clearly knew the word and correctly spelled it. She started to spell quickly and, after missing the second letter, immediately went back and corrected herself. The rules are quite clear that a speller can start over, but that the first utterances count. There’s no going back and fixing.
I received the packet of information months in advance. That was something I couldn’t practice for.
I could see if the words were suitably hard.
In the office, we tested ourselves — a bunch of adults who generally make their livings in a word field.
And, in some cases, we were found wanting.
The random word Editor Jon Sitler had to spell was ‘vicissitudes.’ I can pronounce that one. I am fairly confident that I could not spell it accurately without looking at it. Jon did not.
In Jon’s defense, that was word number 222. The words generally get increase in difficulty from 1 to 225.
The next word was one none of us had even heard — coquelicot. Sounds like Coke-li-Co. Stacey Gross made an admirable effort, but threw in a second ‘q’.
Thankfully, I did not have to read that word at the bee.
The spellers made it through about 100 words.
The caliber of competition was such that the first 70 words would have done little, if anything, to narrow the field, so after using the first 13 words as a nerve-settling practice round, we decided to start at 70 to save time. No one missed from there until word 114.
I said ‘about 100’ because I intentionally skipped several words and inadvertently skipped four others.
When I was given the packet of information including the rules, the responsibilities of the pronouncer and judges, and the words, I looked it over fairly carefully.
I checked the words to make sure they were familiar. In some cases I had to check the pronunciations. The way I say some of the words is not at the top of the pronunciation tree. The pronouncer is supposed to use the first pronunciation. When talking about a food market I say ‘groshree’ or ‘grosseree’ rather than ‘grossree.’ I was to say ‘handiwurk’ instead of ‘handeewurk,’ and ‘praktikullee’ not ‘praktiklee.’
I marked up my sheets quite a bit to make sure I remembered.
The rules made it sound like the pronouncer could opt out of words. I decided I would not read the proper nouns — Icelandic, Pyrenees, Hispaniola, and Chesapeake among them.
There was one ‘word’ that I pulled out of the list for the simple reason that I did not want to have to say it. Number 175 was ‘piece de resistance’ — pee es duh ray zee stonts. And, no, I couldn’t just Englishify it. I’ve heard artsy folks use that term, probably even used it myself in mockery of some not-at-all-grand accomplishment. Then, I defeated my wish not to publicly state it by explaining to the audience that I would be skipping certain words, including ‘piece de resistance.’
I made all these decisions long before the day of the bee.
The significant modification I made on Thursday was to skip the back of one page of words. I read word 169 at the bottom of one page and word 176 at the top of the next without turning the page and getting 170 through 175.
They were good ones, too. The spellers missed out on ‘fluorescent,’ ricochet,’ ‘merengue’ (I thought it was pie flavor until I read the dance definition), and ‘entrepreneurs.’
‘Methuselah’ was word 172, but, as a proper noun, I wasn’t planning on reading it anyway.
I read each acceptable word, then used it in a sentence.
Some of the sentences were so long I thought the spellers might forget the word along the way. For ‘testament’: “Generally, a last will and testament should contain at the very least the name of an executor, information relating to one’s burial, and bequests to beneficiaries.”
I had other information — language of origin, park of speech, definition — and the students were welcome to ask for it. Not one did.
The samples also included a lot of names I found to be odd. I was Ok with Johanna, Pilar, Freya, Arlo, Beatrice, and Luisa. I substituted Anna for Ama, Ferdinand for Ferdian, and just put in pronouns for two others that completely threw me off.
I stumbled a bit on the sample sentence for ‘reprobate.’ It was used as a verb. I was ready for a noun.
As a word guy, I appreciate the knowledge and effort put in by the students of Warren County and I look forward to participating in future spelling bees.
I doubt those students will ever cease to surprise me by knocking out very challenging words.