I don’t often wake up in a sweat from reliving the eighth grade.
There’s me, four-eyed, cowlicked and draped in an over-sized I.O.U. sweatshirt, facing the peercing gaze of a few hundred middle-schoolers and teachers, and waiting for the squad of judges to fire their next multisyllabic missile.
“Multisyllabic. May I have the definition please? May I have the part of speech please? Can you use it in a sentence? What is the language of origin? Are there any other alternate pronunciations? Multisyllabic. M-U-L-T-I-S-I-L-L-A-B-I-C. Multisyllabic.”
Then it comes; a hope-squashing, dream-crushing sound. DING. “Multisyllabic is spelled M-U-L-T-I-S-Y-L-L-A-B-I-C.” Jeers rain as I step from the stage and, defeated, shuffle my way to the bleachers to join my nerd friends. “Y. Y! I knew that!” There’s nothing left for me now but to seek solace in the warm-blanket acceptance of the band room. Leaving the gymnasium, I hear the Kettle Moraine Middle School Eighth Grade Spelling Bee Champion’s winning word echo in the chasm of my pubescent failure: onomatopoeia. (onomatopoeia… onomatopoeia… onoma…)
Thankfully, the only time of year I head to the bathroom at 3:00am to towel off is right around the airing of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And though it brings me nightmares every year, I must watch.*
It’s no mystery what’s so engaging about the spelling bee. Most of us have been in a spelling bee at some point, and like all things we’ve done or can easily imagine doing, we love seeing it done at the absolute highest level. And let there be no dispute: though the competitors’ ages top out at around 13, they form a Dream Team of spellers.
Really? You ask. Here’s just a few of the words spelled during the 2009 competition: antonomasia, bouquiniste, oriflamme, menhir, phoresy, Maecenas, guayabera, isagoge, sophrosyne, schizaffin, wisent, diacoele, reredos, amarevole, becquerel, Caerphilly, palatschinken, ecossaise, fackeltanz, jacqueminot. Ironically, the spellchecker has flagged all but three of those words as misspelled.
My utmost respect goes out to this year’s champion, Kavya Shivashankar, an eighth-grader from Olathe, Kansas. She, along with Sidharth Chand of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., were favorites coming into this year’s bee. Fortunately for Ms. Shivashankar, she played the role of Tiger Woods, while Mr. Chand’s performance was more akin to Phil Mickelson; Woods possesses nerves of steal and an unparalleled drive to win, while Mickelson usually falls short of expectations. Chand slipped up on apodyterium. A fluke error on such an elementary word with clear Latin and Greek origins, something any speller at that level would have studied. Even the greats lip out a “gimme” put from time to time.
Sporting analogies come easy when writing about the spelling bee. Perhaps that’s why this year’s semi-final rounds were covered by ESPN, with the final round shown on parent network ABC. In fact, you can still watch the 2009 bee on ESPN360.com. Given the prime-time media coverage of the National Spelling Bee this year, it’s clear the spelling bee is enjoying a pop culture renaissance. No longer is it the solely the domain of cowlicky geeks and near-sighted nerds, in large part due to the success of such films as Akeelah and the Bee and Spellbound, as well as the musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. All are heart-warming tales of quirky youngsters trying their hardest and learning valuable life lessons along the way.
But I would like to take this opportunity to thank MTV for pushing the spelling bee to new highs – and lows – and cementing it as a full-on cultural force. In its unremarkably not-groundbreaking “reality” TV show, Real World / Road Rules Challenge: The Duel 2, MTV uses the spelling bee as one of the many “challenges” in which contestants compete to receive “immunity” from contest elimination. In a recent episode, players stood elevated 100 ft. above water in bikinis and board shorts and had to spell to stay alive – and dry. If a word was misspelled, the player was dropped (though by cord and harness and almost in slow motion) into frigid New Zealand lake water.
Before addressing the spelling aspect of this episode, it is worth noting that this might be one of the worst (and best, in a sense) shows ever produced for television. The concept: place “characters” from MTV’s other dumbfoundingly dumb reality shows in another entirely trite “reality” show where their idiocy, shallowness, narcissism, joblessness, enhancedness, and utter unproductivity to the human race can be displayed hebdomadally. (A word used in this year’s National Spelling Bee, by the way.)
Being precariously poised on a high-rise platform with wind whipping, where failure yields falling, may not be the most conducive condition for spelling. But, we are talking about highly competitive TV personalities that have faced worse, presumably, during the course of the show. After the “ladies” finish dry-heaving (from “fright,” I suppose), they begin to spell, and are followed by the men. Here’s the first round of words: arithmetic, exercise, freight, poison, cucumber, abnormal, yesterday, throne, simile, extremely. Here’s the second: millennium, pinnacle, immaculate, curriculum, svelte.
The lists are mostly comprised of fourth-grade level words and, even in these circumstances, one would think college-age and older adults could spell them rather easily. So, how many correct spellings do you think there were out of fifteen words? 12? 10? Nay, only seven. Only seven of those words were spelled correctly. It was astonishing and unbelievably – or perhaps believably – hilarious.
In fact, the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade Level of this very article is 8.00, which means that it could likely be understood by someone in the eighth grade, which, hysterically, might exclude most of the contestants from The Duel 2 if they were asked to read it standing on that platform.
At this point I’m really tempted to tell you how the misspelled words were so. But, the commitment and, let’s say, seriousity of each speller cannot be captured in words. Don’t be upset, you can watch the entire episode online. I recommend starting at around the 17 minute mark (though only after watching the opening credits and “Haka” chant, which truly set the mood for what you are about to view) to spare yourself – if you so wish – from a level of baseness achieved only by MTV.
If, however, you’re hankering to spell, but even ten minutes of lowbrow is enough to start you packing for Paris, here are some other ways to indulge your newfound or rejuvenated lexiophilic leanings.
Scrabble. If you don’t know what this is, where have you been since the mid-twentieth century? My advice: Buy the Diamond Anniversary Edition. The swivel board and tile-holding gameboard make it worth every penny.
Upwords. A Scrabble-y word game that’s a tad simpler at first glance, with generally shorter game-play. Its distinctive characteristic: You are allowed to build words on top of existing words. My advice: Don’t think of it as vertical Scrabble and play words to score big on layer one. You will make it too difficult to build upward later in the game.
Boggle. With letters randomized in a square grid, you are to find as many words as possible by connecting touching letters. My advice: Don’t forget to look for forms of a found word. It can help you turn one word into two or three longer ones.
Snatch. A portable and well-designed game in which players form words from a central pool of letters turned right-side-up, one at a time. Its distinctive characteristic: Players may “snatch” another player’s words by stealing the word’s letters and forming a new word (you can’t, however, just add ‘s’ or ‘d’ to steal).My advice: Form words as you can that contain 5 or more letters or odd combinations of letters. The more letters your words contain, the more you score, and the harder it becomes for other players to snatch your words.
Bananagrams. Players begin with a random group of letters and must form words in a Scrabble-like manner until all their tiles are used, and all tiles from the “bunch” are gone. This one is my favorite and fun in groups, alone, or one-on-one. Its distinctive characteristic: At any point in the game, you can scrap any and all words made. My advice: Be fast, very fast. Every time you place all your unused letters you and all other players take one from the bunch. If you can be fastest, unused letters pile up on your opponents and slow them down.
So here we are, spelling sweet teeth satiated, all thanks to a few pre-pubescent, highly intelligent kids who can spell words that Google Docs doesn’t even recognize as words. I’d like to congratulate them for their effort and commitment to excellence, and remind us all that the spelling bee is as honest as a competition can be in our age of PEDs.
*Some events and persons in above story might be fictional. Any similarity to real persons or events might be coincidence. Names and descriptions might have been changed to protect the innocent and me.