Everyone is familiar with the hippopotamus, the gargantuan gray pachyderm that's cute but can also be dangerous and deadly. The word hippopotamus has one of my favorite etymologies. It's not that it's esoteric or complex. It comes from the Greek hippo- meaning horse and potam- meaning river, so literally, it means "river horse." There's something oddly funny to me about thinking about a hippopotamus as a river horse, but such is language. There are a number of hippo- words in addition to this that are equally amusing, baffling, or fascinating.
Case in point: hippotigrine, meaning "of or relating to the zebra." Etymologically, however, this means "horse tiger." It's definitely amusing to think of a zebra not as its own animal, but as a hybrid of a tiger and a horse. It's funny, but it makes sense--the zebra does, after all, look like a horse, but with striped patterns reminiscent of the tiger.
Then, of course, there's hippogriff. It's a mythical creature that's half griffin and half horse. That one's straightforward enough, but I still love it because of its portmanteau-style construction. There are plenty of other very straightforward hipp- words, like hippology (the study of horses), hippic (relating to horses or horse racing), and hippodrome (a stadium for horse races). Overall, though, it's a fun (although common) root that has a part in some incredible words.
Jack, cheddar, parmesan--everybody knows a handful of common cheese names. Beyond that, though, there's a whole world of cheese words that have fascinating etymologies.
Take, for example, gammelost. It's a Norwegian blue mold cheese. The interesting part is that in Norwegian, "gammelost" literally translates to "old cheese": gammel means old, and ost means cheese. This is likely related to the "mold" part of the definition, but either way it's funny to see a cheese named for being old. There are a number of other "-ost" cheeses as well, such as primost ("whey cheese") and gjetost ("goat cheese"). Although all of these words are derived from Norwegian, they are English words that can be found in Merriam-Webster Unabridged.The phenomenon of "x cheese" cheese-naming is visible in words derived from other languages as well: schmierkase, which is cottage cheese, means "smear cheese" in German.
Another notable cheese-naming pattern involves geographical names. Cabrales, a blue cheese, is named for the municipality in Asturias, Spain in which it is made. Caerphilly, a mild white Welsh cheese, carries the name of an urban area in Wales.
Most people love cheese, although some hate it. It's undeniable, however, that the many unique cheese names and their origins are fascinating.
I started thinking about imitative words again this morning when someone I was working with misspelled "kyoodle." Imitative words have caused massive trouble for many a speller; in fact, "lulliloo" was nearly my downfall on a written test in 2015. At times satisfyingly phonetic, at times frustratingly not at all phonetic, there's no denying that imitative words are difficult. However, there's also no denying that imitative words can be a lot of fun. Here are some of my favorites.
Bisbigliando. This word is a musical direction for harps meaning "very light and murmuring." It originally comes from the Italian word for "whisper," which was created as an imitation of the actual sound of whispering. This word is fascinating to me because it shows that although the formation of imitative words occurs in all languages, it still follows the patterns of its own language even though the intention is to mimic a universal sound. (That is to say, "bisbigliare" just isn't a verb that would be coined in most other languages).
Guitguit. This one has the bonus of not just being imitative, but reduplicative as well. The reduplication in this word gives the word more of a fun sound than if it were just "guit." It's the name of a bird, so presumably its name is meant to imitate the sound it makes.
Boof. This one actually isn't that unique; there are loads of other words with the same meaning. Woof, bark, you name it, they're all different imitative words for the sounds that dogs make. However, they each have different connotations and create slightly different sounds in your mind, and "boof" always conjures up a noisy and gargantuan dog. It's interesting how much imagery your brain can create based on an individual word and word choice.
There are hundreds of fascinating imitative words in the dictionary in addition to these. What are your favorites?
Most pronouncers are extremely skilled and know what they're doing. Surprisingly (or maybe not), though, there are many pronouncers (especially at more local spelling bees) that pronounce a few (or several, or most) words incorrectly. If you've participated in a good number of spelling bees, you've probably been there. The pronouncer says your word indecipherably wrong, and you spell it wrong as a result. (I've definitely had my share of these experiences as a speller). When you try to appeal due to the mispronunciation, the pronouncer and judges refuse to hear your case, insisting they pronounced the word correctly. It's not fun for anyone involved.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent getting into this situation beforehand. If you know that the pronouncer at a certain bee is sometimes less than competent, then, as backwards as it may sound, have someone quiz you on the words you're studying while intentionally mispronouncing them in a number of ways so you can get used to deciphering incorrect pronunciations. Come up with ways--yes, even absurd ones--that a word might be mispronounced. It may seem odd, but it could save you from elimination as a result of mispronunciation.
That being said, it could still happen. If you're anticipating mispronunciations, print out the pronunciation guide on Merriam-Webster Unabridged and take it with you just in case you have to appeal. That way, you'll have concrete evidence regarding diacritics with which to argue your case. You've worked too hard to be eliminated by a mispronunciation--it's better to appeal and risk being eliminated anyway than to not try at all.
Over the past four days, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to go on a road trip with my family through much of the southwest US--we visited four national parks and went through three states (in addition to Colorado, of course). Last night, when we were in Grand Canyon National Park, I found my dad Googling the origin of the name Arizona, which gave me a great idea for a blog post: geographical names. Although there is some controversy over the exact origin, it’s something similar to this: Arizona’s name is derived from the O’odham alĭ ṣonak (meaning “small spring”), which eventually became Arizona. The name Arizona was initially applied to a village in Sonora, although it later became the name of the US state we know today. Arizona is also used as a place name in many locations throughout Central and South America.
So why am I rambling on about geographical names? What does that have to do with spelling? Any seasoned speller can tell you that geographical names present some of the toughest challenges in the bee. Oftentimes, instead of being given a straightforward language of origin, the speller is told where the geographical name is used (e.g. the given origin for “Arizona” would likely be “American geographical name” or something similar). It can make it much more difficult to discern any language patterns or other clues that may assist with the spelling of word. While it’s true that the nature of geographical names makes them difficult to spell, many spellers might think that this means that the learning of geographical names should be undertaken purely as a memorization task, which is not true. While many geographical names can certainly be learned through memorization, they’re really just like any other words. There are three main tools, besides plain memorization, that will be the most helpful to you in mastering the spellings of geographical names.
Every year, as the Scripps National Spelling Bee comes closer and closer, the predictions begin. Articles are posted on news sites, former spellers are interviewed about their favorites, and a group of current and former spellers holds their own "fantasy spelling" competition on the Internet, modeled after fantasy football. The consensus among virtually everyone in 2017 was that there were three favorites: Shourav Dasari, Siyona Mishra, and Tejas Muthusamy, and yet none of them won. Shourav Dasari and Snehaa Ganesh Kumar were both favorites in 2016--neither won. All of this is not to say that those chosen as favorites aren't great spellers, of course, but the fact is that the bee is unpredictable and the unexpected is more likely than the expected. So why is the bee so unpredictable?
First of all, you don't always know how hard everyone is working. While previous bee records are certainly relevant, they're not everything. There is always someone relatively unknown who has been studying intently throughout the year. They may not have had a chance to show off their spelling skills in previous bees, but that doesn't mean that they will necessarily be any less of a force in the bee that's being predicted. Prediction isn't possible with these types, as (evidently) they don't always have a record to look at.
Secondly, as hard as anyone can try, the bee's word list can never be perfectly even. Harder words are used in the same rounds as easier ones. Luck is an element. No matter how good of a speller someone is, there are always words that they might not know. Nobody has ever successfully memorized every single word in the dictionary, although some have come close. The favorites might get unlucky and get those words. There's definitely a debate on how fair this is, but if luck weren't an element, would the bee really be the bee?
The third element: nerves. The best of the best have succumbed to the pressure that's on them during the bee. Despite having studied for hundreds and hundreds of hours, sometimes stress and tension are enough to take a speller down.
Why do you think the bee is unpredictable? Do you think the bee should be predictable? Why?
One interesting bee. Such was the case in the Friends of Dinosaur Ridge's (FODR) first Scientific Spelling Stomp. I had the opportunity to curate the word list and pronounce for this bee, which took place on October 1 to raise money for FODR. Although this bee was in many senses normal, there were a few twists.
Firstly, instead of individual spellers, teams took part in the bee. They discussed and agreed on a spelling, and then one of them spelled the word for the judges. If they were eliminated before the 5th round, each time had the opportunity to buy back into the bee for $10.
Arguably the most significant twist, however, was that all of the words in the bee were related to either geology or paleontology. With words ranging from minerals to dinosaur genus names, the teams (many of whom boasted experienced geologists and paleontologists) "stomped" their way through the bee, with Dr. Scott Isaacs, Cameron Keith, and Suzanne McClung as judges (anyone familiar with the world of competitive spelling will likely recognize at least one of the first two names). Within a few hours, a winning team had been named--the three-person "Rock"ettes, who won a $500 prize by correctly spelling "facies." This was immediately followed by a dramatic spell-off for the second place $100 prize, clinched by the Colorado Geological Survey's team with the word "paramo."
A week later, I find myself able to reflect on the bee a little more than I was able to in the moment. It definitely provided me with an opportunity for growth with respect to running bees, as I had to write out the rules, make the word list, and pronounce for the whole bee. I also became more accustomed to dealing with appeals--not being a judge, I had no actual say in the final decision, but I had to field the initial request for an appeal. The bee also fulfilled another part of its purpose which was to encourage scientific literacy. The precision of science works because we have exact terms to describe things, and knowing how to spell those terms is very important when communicating about scientific concepts.
Perhaps the best part of the bee for me personally was how people relatively unaccustomed to the world of spelling were introduced to it in a somewhat unconventional way. Adults and kids competed together, and teams rather than individuals were the players, but it still provided a glimpse into the eccentric microcosm that is the world of competitive spelling. For anyone interested in such an event, I highly recommend that you attend next year's event!
The first sign of a new bee season has recently been released--the 2017-18 School Spelling Bee Study List (I'll post a link or file for it on this site as soon as I can). This list has 450 words in it, from which most school bees will draw their words. If you're new to spelling, a 450 word list can seem a little daunting. Here are some ideas on how to break it up and get it learned by the time your school bee rolls around!
Decide on a number of words to do each day. If this is your first time studying for a bee, you might not want to take on a ton of studying to start with, so something like 50 words per day could be a reasonable goal--or, if you're more ambitious, you could of course do more.
Have someone quiz you through all of the words. Have them pronounce the word for you, and you can spell the word. Mark all the words you miss--circle them, put an "x" next to them, or do something else. Just make sure that whatever you do, you can easily identify which ones you missed. Keep doing this until you've gotten through the entire list once.
Go over the entire list twice. This seems like it will just take more time, and it will, but it's worth it. It gives you a chance to make sure you know the words that you got correct, and didn't just get them right the first time on a lucky guess.
Once that's done, make Quizlets (quizlet.com) with the words that you missed. Include your misses from both the first and second times through. Once you've added the words, definitions, and diacritics or pronunciations, do each Quizlet (in the "speller" mode) twice.
Write down every word that you miss from the Quizlets. Then have someone ask you over those words until you've gotten them all right twice in a row.
If you have time, go over the whole list one last time for good measure.
Then there's the bee itself. Here are some tips for handling the competition:
Make sure you know when and where the bee will take place. When I was in fourth grade, I failed to do this and ended up not knowing when it was until two days in advance, which left me scrambling to learn as much of the list as I could before the bee. I did end up winning, but I wasn't as prepared as I could have been.
Understand the format of your bee. Is there a written component? Do you need to know definitions? Get these questions answered. Also, find out if there will be an audience and, if so, how big the audience will be (this applies especially if you struggle with nerves).
Be a good sport. Applaud the efforts of your competitors, regardless of their placement. Don't try to intimidate other students or act like you're certain to win. If you get out, do your best not to be jealous of those who have beaten you--this was something I definitely did not do well in my first bee in third grade.
Tune out everything except the word. Ignore the people in the audience. Ignore your competitors. Ignore everything except yourself, your word, and the pronouncer or judges.
Don't freeze up. Even if you don't know your word or forgot it, you still have a chance at getting it right. Don't despair.
The first school bees aren't for another two months or so, but it's never too early to start preparing. Good luck to everyone at the first stage of competition this year!
A week and four days ago, 60 Second Docs came out with a (as might be expected, one minute long) video about me. The video was excellent and overall accurate--it covered my coaching, competition experience, and some of my other work in assisting with the running of bees. As expected, it got a mix of responses; some were very positive, some very negative. By now, I have forgotten most of the comments, positive or negative, but one of them still sticks out in my mind: "I would like to know where, especially in this modern digital world, a spelling bee is important."
The answer: it is important everywhere. There is not a day that goes by where I don't encounter a situation where I use something that I learned from the bee and my studies. In my classes at school, I can understand concepts more easily because I studied the word for the concept in spelling. It helps me in learning languages--I can recognize Latin and Greek roots that I've learned in spelling in words that I'm learning for French and Spanish. I don't get as stressed when I have a busy schedule because I know that I have handled an even fuller schedule when I was studying for the bee, and my time management skills were improved. Believe it or not, bee experience helped me to not be as perfectionist; because of the bee, I know that success isn't necessarily defined by being the best--it's defined by giving it your all, pushing your limits, and being better than you were before.
However, even if I hadn't learned a thing from the bee, I would still be glad that I did it. Ultimately, for most spellers, the bee is not about the prize money, the work ethic, or any of the "lessons." The bee is about the words, how so many intricacies and nuances can be put together with 26 letters. The bee is about the countless hours spent--usually by choice--getting lost in the paths that words took to come to be how they are today. More than anything, the bee is about the sheer thrill. When you get up to the microphone, suddenly you forget everything that came before this moment and everything that might be coming after. Somewhere in your brain, you know that millions of people are watching, so you're nervous, but in the moment you forget why. For the two minutes you have to piece your word together, it's just you, the judges, the letters, and the lights. Everything else falls away, time distorts itself, and you live a dozen lifetimes in a single second. At its core, that's what the bee is about. So of course spelling is important and the bee is important, but it wouldn't matter if it wasn't. That's just not what it's about.
Everyone struggles with time management. It doesn't matter what you do or don't have in your schedule, it always feels like there's not enough time, and the temptation of procrastination is always looming. It's definitely not specific to spelling. So why am I writing about this on a spelling blog? It's around that time of year where students start school--some may have already started, many are about to start. Back in middle school, when I was eligible for the spelling bee, the hardest thing about starting school was managing my busy schedule while keeping up with the studying that I wanted to do for spelling. For many spellers, time management during the school year can be difficult. Many spellers are academically advanced, meaning that they have a lot of schoolwork and homework to get done. In addition to that, many of them have other extracurricular activities--sports, musical instruments, etc. Also, spellers who want to be highly ranked national contenders have to find time for dozens of hours of orthographic study every week. So that's why I'm writing this post--to share some of what I learned about managing a full schedule while having to study spelling in addition.
Prioritize. Which of your homework do you HAVE to get done today? What can you do later? Decide what's important so that you can spread out your work. This will help you maintain a steady schedule for your spelling studies (because your other work is spread out temporally) while keeping your other work stress-free instead of freaking out every day because you have so much stuff to do and you're not sure where to start. (Note: while you should prioritize your work, don't procrastinate. Just because that essay isn't due until Friday doesn't mean you should wait until 10 pm on Thursday to start it just so that you can do more spelling earlier in the week--you'll end up tired on Friday and you won't get the spelling you need to done on Thursday or Friday).
Make a schedule every day. Many spellers make calendars for their spelling so that they have a plan of what they want to have done when. I recommend doing just that, but on a smaller scale, and include your other obligations. At the start of every day, set aside time for spelling, but also set aside specific times when you will do the other things you need to do. Like prioritization, this helps you know where to start and what to do next instead of just having a muddled "list" in your mind. It also helps you set deadlines for yourself, which is great for productivity.
Alternate between spelling and other things. Sometimes in middle school, I would get home from school and try to do all of my spelling before starting homework, or do all of my homework before starting spelling. This always damaged my focus and productivity because I ended up trying to think about the same thing for hours on end. Instead, do some spelling, then some homework, then some spelling, and so on. Break up your time into hour-and-a-half long chunks so you'll get something substantial done without getting too tired of the task at hand to continue focusing. Then, once you finish that block of spelling time, do some schoolwork so that you get a break from spelling while still being productive and doing something you need to do.
Take (timed) breaks. No, I don't mean "do homework instead of spelling for a while," although that can be a good way to get your mind off spelling on a particularly busy day where real breaks are hardly an option. Take short breaks from working on things altogether--go outside or read a book for fifteen minutes. However, make sure to time these breaks so you don't find yourself still reading three hours later when you should have been studying.
Minimize distractions. Don't study with your phone right next to you. Need I say more?
Whatever your spelling goals are, following these guidelines will likely produce the results you seek. More importantly, they are good, disciplined study and work skills that will carry over into other parts of your life and create other successes too.