2007 National Spelling Bee, Finals
Bill Long 5/31/07
Someone once said (I can't find the source of this quotation) that when he wanted to take up painting, he decided to look at Dutch painters from the 17th century. He studied Hals and Rembrandt expecially. After examining both at length he said, "When I look at a Hals, I want to take up painting; when I look at a Rembrandt, I want to give it up!"
My feelings were a little like that last night as the 15 final spellers in the Scripps National Spelling Bee squared off for the last rounds of the competition. The words were so difficult, so arcane and so "foreign" that it was amazing that many of the words were spelled correctly by any spellers. I wanted to "give it up" so to speak, even though I have spent a good deal of time on words in the past few years. The 15 words in Round 7 knocked out eight spellers. The seven words in Round 8 eliminated another five. Thus, 22 words in two rounds eliminated 13/15 of the the best young spellers in America. I was rooting for Isabel Jacobson, since she was being coached by Jeff Kirsch, with whom I regularly keep in contact after he beat me in the 2004 National Senior Spelling Bee (he was first; I was second). Isabel placed 14th last year; this year she was third. I think she did an incredible job, and Jeff's coaching no doubt also made an immense difference. The purpose of this essay is to go through the list of these 22 words. I will not focus in this essay on the final seven or so words which led to Evan O' Dorney's victory in the thirteenth round, by correctly spelling serrefine.
Just one preliminary note before going through the words. I was disappointed in ABC for the coverage. And, I was a bit disappointed in the spelling bee folk. First, the spelling bee folk. I think that they should have had slightly "easier" words in Round 7 so that most of the spellers would have gotten through with a right word on national television. It would have sent the right message--that difficult challenges are surmountable, and that if you work at things, you can succeed. As it was, it just made it appear as if almost everyone was failing. Not a good thing. If my suggestion had happened, things would also have progressed at a better "pace." As it was, there were too few words and too many commercials and other stuff on the show. It took them nearly 90 minutes to do 22 words. That shouldn't happen. This is a spelling bee after all. By giving a round or even two of "easier" words, we not only would see a spelling bee, which we really didn't, but the kids would have been able to have more success on national TV. Now to the words.
I don't think that any of the 22 words in Rounds 8 and 9 are in my dictionary (the one for the Senior Bee--the Collegiate 11th Ed.), but "oh well." Here goes.
First was girolle, which tripped up an excellent speller from Arizona, Jonathan Horton. He spelled it "girol," but it was definitely "girolle." The problem is that "girolle" isn't in my copy of the Unabridged (1993 edition); it probably was added in the 2002 edition. Here is a picture and description of the "girolle," which the writer describes as "the world's most clever cheese slicer."
Then we had rascacio, spelled correctly by the eventual winner. It is a very difficult word, but if you study variegated spinose scorpion fish, why this word would be your bread and butter. One of my projects for the next year is to sort of master the Linnaean classification system--and all the "popular" names that go with it.
All the Linnaean knowledge in the world wouldn't have helped with zacate. It, too, was mispelled, but if you knew it was a Spanish term, and if you knew your marches (I used to play piano as a boy, and my teacher thought that, as a boy, I ought to learn to play Sousa and other marches. So, I played the Zacatecas march as a 10 year-old), you probably would have gotten this word for forage or herbage.
A speller got apozem correct, even though it is listed as an obsolete word on the net (only 1500 or so Google references), and is defined only as a "decoction" or "infusion." What really does it mean? It is derived from two Greek words meaning "to boil off," but the OED doesn't have an attestation in the last 125 years. The only redeeming feature of the word is that it is fairly easy to sound out.
Another speller got partitur right. He asked all the right questions abou the word. Learning it was German (and not French) told him that the word ended with an "r" and not an "e." It is a musical term--a full musical score--and the speller, Nate Gartke (who finished second), is a musician.
Bouleuterion is difficult for those who don't know Greek, but it is a pretty straight shot from the Greek verb bouleuo. Joseph Henares, who tied for third, correctly spelled punaise, the common bed bug. I wonder, however, why the word isn't more common. The next word, urgrund, also tripped up a speller. She didn't seem to know her German roots or words, for she added a "dt" to the end of the word. It is a philosophical term, and is a very common one in German.
The next word, cilice, was all over the papers in 2006 because of the movie version of the Da Vinci Code--a phenomenon that has (justifiably) faded quickly from the American psyche (I hope). The over-the-top priest or person studying to be a priest in the film was into self-flagellation and punishment. One of the ways he tormented himself was to wear a cilice around his thigh--tightening it so that the inward-turned nails would dig into his skin. Great for those who have weak stomachs.
Pelorus was also spelled incorrectly, but is a familiar term from classical studies--as the pilot on Hannibal's boat. Then we had helzel, which I misspelled (spelling it helzl, probably after the spelling of "herzl"), but was spelled correctly by Connor Spencer. The next word, genizah, is quite interesting. It is a term I ran into many times in my doctoral work, especially when I studied the "Cairo Genizah fragments." Yet, here is the problem. The Unabridged says that it is spelled genizah. There are 105,000 Google attestations of it with that spelling. But there are 103,000 appearances of geniza. Just to make matters more complicated, the OED has both spellings (though genizah is preferred) and Wikipedia, in its articles, has one on Genizah and one on Cairo Geniza. I think we have a problem here, Houston.
Well, I am out of space here, so I think I will need one more essay to "finish" the Bee.