February 11, 2011. Two days before my eighth birthday. It also happened to be the day of my first ever spelling bee. If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting too much. I had learned the list of words that my brother had learned for the bee (we were both competing). The bee began, and I got my words.
Gnash. Feud. Thorax. Raspberry. Succinct. I didn’t struggle too much.
It was my turn again.
Zigzaggedness. I knew this one. No problem.
“Zigzaggedness. S . . .”
I stopped. How could I have said the wrong letter? On accident? I knew the word!
I felt myself blushing more intensely than I ever had, and probably ever would. All 300 kids in my elementary school were staring at me, and I had just made a fool of myself. What could be done?
I spat out the correct letters. Z-I-G-Z-A-G-G-E-D-N-E-S-S. But it was too late. I couldn’t take back the S. I jumped off the stage and sat down with the other eliminated kids. Then I cried.
Within a week or two, I had gotten over it. It was just the spelling bee. Who cared about that anyway?
From that day, I would go on to compete in my regional bee four times. I would go to the Scripps National Spelling Bee twice, placing ninth in 2015 and fourth in 2016. You probably already know some of this if you’re on this website. I promise there’s a point to me saying all of this.
On that February day seven years ago, I didn’t know that as the years went on, spelling would become unrivaled as the most important thing in my life. I was going to study hundreds of thousands of words, give up other activities, say “no” to my friends far more often than I wanted to, and it was ultimately going to pay off. I was going to get to go to Washington, DC twice (and once as a spectator) and meet so many people. Some of them would become my closest friends. I was going to win a bee put on by the Spelling Bee of China in California. I was going to travel to China for a spelling bee, and I was going to get to meet even more amazing people through that experience. Once I was ineligible, I was going to start coaching younger spellers.
Of course, seven-year-old me didn’t know any of those things. I figured I’d do the school bee the next year in fourth grade and try to win. If I didn’t, it would be no big deal. I didn’t need spelling. There were better things to do. Over seven years later, I can’t imagine my life without spelling.
This rambling and messy post does have a purpose. If you’re doing anything (spelling or something else) and you’ve only just begun, don’t give up. You never know where it might take you. It might just be the best thing to ever happen to you.
The week leading up to a bee (especially a regional or national bee) is often one of the most stressful weeks of a year. I've had the opportunity to experience these weeks firsthand a number of times. Many people, especially if it's their first time competing at a certain bee, are unsure of what to do in the week beforehand. How to modify your schedule, how to modify your study strategies, and how to mentally prepare yourself are frequently asked (and very good) questions. Here's what worked for me.
Scheduling: Set up your schedule so that you can study as much as possible. Eliminate all but the necessary obligations from your schedule if you can. Write out a schedule each night (on school nights) or day (on weekends) of what you're going to do when. Give yourself breaks though--it's not efficient or healthy to study for hours and hours on end without breaks. Take 5-10 minutes every hour or two to get up, walk around, and drink a glass of water.
Studying: Review, review, review. Go over all the words you've struggled with from everything that you've studied. Then, write down the ones you miss and go over the missed words 5-10 times (it might seem like a lot, but it's absolutely worth it). Then, write down the ones you miss during those 5-10 reviews, and review those 10 times. Repeat the process until you've gotten all your missed words correct multiple times.
Mental Preparation: If you're anything like me, you're probably at least a little nervous. Take some time to get into a good mindset. Envision yourself winning as vividly as possible multiple times, and envision yourself losing once or twice too so that you're prepared for both outcomes. (Mostly envision yourself winning, though--confidence boosts are always a good thing). Most importantly, remember that you've worked hard. Remind yourself that regardless of the outcome, the experience and knowledge gained is so much more important than your placement or a trophy.
Every speller comes face to face at some point with the everlasting conundrum of -ible versus -able. It always appears at first as though there are no rules, no patterns, no guidelines by which to guess what ending the word uses. However, if one parses through enough words, some tendencies become apparent.
The basic rule for this is to drop the suffix and see what remains. If it's a whole word, use -able. If it's not, use -ible. Take, for example "accountable" and "disponible." "Account" is a word. "Dispon" is not. Of course, even the best rules have exceptions, so there are some ways to determine if a word is an exception.
The -ion rule can be incredibly helpful in this pursuit. It's pretty simple. If the base word of the -ible/-able word has a form ending in -ion, it's probably -ible. Think of "combustible." "Combust" is a whole word in itself, but it doesn't use -able because of its noun counterpart: combustion. There's "assertible" too: "assert" is a whole word, but it still uses an i because of "assertion." It's not a perfect rule, but it's a helpful one at least.
However, there's another challenge if the base word ends in -e. There's still the confusion regarding i vs. a, but an additional question is added: should the e stay or go? The e typically only stays if the base word ends in -ce or -ge, assuming they make s and j sounds respectively. In that case, the word would be -eable (but if the -ion rule applies, drop the e and use an i). Otherwise, it will probably be -able. "Pronounceable" and "ageable" are both good examples--"deducible," however, drops the e and uses and i because of the -ion rule.
If all else fails, go by the numbers--four times as many words end in "-able" as end in "-ible."
Of course, none of these rules are constant, and there are plenty of exceptions. Use these rules as a loose guide, though, and you'll start seeing vast improvement in your ability to differentiate between -ible and -able.
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!