Portland Spelling Bee
Bill Long 7/10/07
7/9 Quarterly Championship--at the Mississippi Pizza Pub
On a warm but pleasant mid-summer Portland evening about 70 people gathered in the funky North Portland landmark known as the Mississippi Pizza Pub for the quarterly spelling championship sponsored by the pub. A $100 cash prize was at stake. Participants included winners from the weekly contests of the 2nd calendar quarter of 2007 as well as a few "walk ons" from the audience. Many participants brought family and friends to cheer them on. As usual, it was a night of learning and fun--for those who have ears to hear and a desire to learn. The purpose of this essay is to review several of the words which were given in the contest. My approach to spelling is that it is both an "innate" talent but a developable skill (mostly the latter). In addition, by exposure to words we potentially deepen our understanding of life. Thus, spelling for me is a way of trying to "get it all straight" once and for all.
The Early Rounds
This bee is a good one, not only because of the impeccable and spirited "emcee-ship" of Katherine Woods-Eliot but because the rounds are "graded" and, generally, the words are of equal caliber in the same round. This having been said, I received a "gimme" last night in a late round ("sewage"), for which I was grateful. The first two rounds are generally pretty straightforward and then, in the third round, the words become much harder and participants get two attempts at the word. Subsequent rounds revert to the "one miss and you're out" rule. We saw one difficult word in round one: stoat, which Helen Slack-Miller spelled correctly. It is the European ermine. Katherine didn't mention the 2nd definition, "a sexually aggressive man, a lecher," which may not have helped anyway, but it sure would have gotten some raised eyebrows. The words I got in the first two rounds were cloister and eddying. Not too bad.
The third round saw many fall, even though I managed to get through. I was Speller 7, in the middle of the pack, and I got fumulus. After ascertaining that it was from Latin (therefore it began with an "f" and not a "ph") and that it was a noun (therefore it ended in "us" and not "ous"), I prompty got right. Though the word is in the Unabridged (meaning a thin cloud resembling a veil), it doesn't appear in the OED. The person before me got coalmouse, the bird Parus ater. She spelled it the first time as colemouse but then got it right on the second try. Hm. The OED lists both as possible spellings, though coalmouse is preferred.
But others fell. Helen got pachymeter, a device to measure the thickness of things, especially paper. If you know your Greek prefixes, you know that pachy means "thick," such as in the words pachyderm (thick-skinned), pachyodont (thick-teeth), Pachysandra (the male stamen being thick), pachyote (a bat with thick ears) and pachytic, just plain fat or obese. Well, the next person got a really tough word, echoppe. An echoppe is a specialized engraver's needle. Jacques Callot (1592-1635), a Lorraine engraver, invented the echoppe. The Wikipedia article says it is an "etching-needle" with a slanding oval section at the end, which enabled etchers to create a swelling line, as engravers were able to do.
We moved on to gryposis, which eliminated the next contestant. It is an abnormal curvature of the nails. The Greek word is grypousthai, to become hooked or grooved. The unfortunate thing about this word, as with echoppe, is that there are no other English words derived off its stem. So, you just have to learn the word. The next person missed gimbal, a mechanical device allowing rotation of an object in multiple dimensions, such as a ship's compass. Here is a picture of one. When we finished round 3, we had only six spellers who remained.
As time went on, other spellers fell. One missed Compositae, the family Asteraceae, known as the aster, daisy, sunflower family of flowers. Whenever you hear the word "family" in a Linnaean classification system, you know it has to end with an "ae." The speller appended a final "y" to it. The "official" pronunciation is com-pos-i-TEE, though I have heard other ways to pronounce a final "ae." A quick web search shows that there is even an "International Compositae Alliance." Perhaps the speller who missed the word should be forced to join...
Another speller missed palingenesis which, if you know your Greek roots, is straightforward. We have the word palindrome, which means to "run again" (the same spelling backwards and forwards). The word palingenesis, rebirth, is formed in the same way. Well, when we got down to three spellers, all of us missed two words in succession, thus sending us into later rounds. I don't know if I recall all the words we missed, but here are a few of them.
Kyle missed shoal and rodomont. Katherine gave a more obscure definition of shoal, which amounted to a "school" of fish. I think that confused Kyle. He hadn't heard of rodomont, though the word rodomontade (a blustery spiel, named after a character in a 16th century Italian work), is pretty common. Kyle's third miss ended up eliminating him. That word was larigo, which is a very rare word (and could be confused with the French word larigot--an organ stop) derived from Spanish and means a ring at the end of a cinch through which the latigos pass. I love a word which makes you learn another word (such as viga and latilla), and larigo/latigo is such a pair.
Amanda fell on suppliantly, sacciform and one other which I didn't record. She slipped an "e" in the former instead of the "a," and confused the latter word with saxiform, which would mean "in the shape of a rock," though I doubt whether saxiform is or should be an English word. The pronunciation of sacciform didn't help (SAX eh form). It means "like a sack" or "purse."
My Misses and Conclusion
My words were relatively easy this time around, but I still managed to miss two, for which I will no doubt be embarrassed forever. The first was shako, which I knew, but which I spelled shoko. It just goes to show that if I am ever going to be a good speller I need to learn words three to four times. Then I have it in my mind pretty perfectly. I also missed chinarra, primarily because I didn't know if it was a double or single "r" at the end, and I "misguessed." I should have realized that since the stress was on the last syllable that I should double that syllable. In any case, this is "an important subdivision of the Concho living between the Rio Santa Maria and the Rio Conchos, State of Chihuahua." Well, it may be important, but there are very few Google references to it. In any case, it shows that I still have quite a bit to learn as I study and travel.
I hope the spelling bees continue. It is a great way to have others help me learn.