Spelling their way to success

Shaquille O'Neal (R) and Kavya Shivashankar at the 2010 National Spelling Bee Surprise guest Shaquille O'Neal had a spelling match with last year's Scripps Spelling Bee winner Kavya Shivashankar

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As a writer, there are few experiences more humbling than attending the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington DC.

One can't help but feel a creeping sense of inadequacy as speller after speller steps up to the mike, as confident as a 14-year-old can be in his or her lengthening, gangly limbs.

After expertly quizzing the pronouncer about the etymology of a given word, they flawlessly tackle even the most cryptic ones.

The spelling of thalassian, inconcinnity, muniments may stump Microsoft Word, but not the Scripps semi-finalists, who also happen to know that bilophodont (meaning having two transverse ridges or crests) has roots in the Greek word "dont" meaning tooth.

That's not to say spelling is a breeze for these dedicated youngsters.

Their stress is palpable as they scrunch up their faces and trace out the words with their fingers.

They train with the rigour of college athletes, dedicating hours each day to the study of language origins and usage, being quizzed by coaches and computer programmes, and, of course, poring over the dictionary.

But is all the hard work worth it?

Path to Harvard

George Thampy of St Louis, Missouri, the 2000 Champion, thinks it is.

After correctly spelling the winning word - demarche - Mr Thampy, now 22, went on to attend Harvard, majoring in chemistry.

THIS YEAR'S CONTESTANTS

  • 273 spellers made the national finals
  • 68% attend public school
  • 42 have no siblings
  • 20 have at least one relative who previously made finals
  • One speller is competing for the fourth time
  • The median age is 13
  • One competitor is eight
  • The most popular book is Harry Potter, film is Avatar and food is pizza

He has now been accepted to MBA, or master's degree in business, programmes at Harvard and Stanford but has decided to defer for a few years while he works at a prestigious investment bank in Chicago.

Most of his fellow elite spellers are similarly accomplished. Mr Thampy went to Harvard with many of them.

Spelling, he says, was pivotal to his success, teaching him "a love of learning and an attention to detail and incredible appreciation of the languages and systems that underpin our society".

Scripps Spelling Bee spokesman Tim King says there is a correlation between children who have the academic discipline to succeed at spelling and success in future academic endeavours.

"If you go into the spelling forensics that these champions understand, you have an academic discipline that is going to serve you well in many, many other pursuits," Mr King says.

American as apple pie

Spelling bees are a peculiarly American tradition.

Although there are now competitions all over the world, none approaches the scope or competitiveness of Scripps, where 11 million contestants nationwide vie for the champion's trophy.

The Scripps bee began in 1925 but its popularity has reached new heights over the past decade, partly as a result of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Spellbound.

This year will be the 15th time sports network ESPN has broadcast the semi-finals, and the fifth time ABC has shown the final in prime time.

The variety of tiny faces on stage represent America's diverse tapestry, but it is hard to pin down what makes this contest so definitively American.

Part of its appeal lies in nostalgia for a simpler time, before children were consumed with Facebook, text messaging and cable TV and when communities gathered in elementary school gymnasiums and bonded over their children's "smarts", or intelligence.

"There is a quaint simplicity to children spelling words," Mr King says. "There is that apple pie, all-Americanism to it."

For Mr Thampy, who now volunteers at the national championship, the Bee embodies the American dream: it's a meritocracy that rewards those who work hard enough.

"It combines performance and scholarship - two things that we Americans really enjoy," he says.

Not just for kids

The bee has been criticised in the past for encouraging unhealthy levels of stress and competitiveness in its young contestants.

PAST WINNING WORDS

  • 2009: Laodicean, meaning lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics
  • 2008: guerdon, meaning something that one has earned or gained
  • 2007: serrefine, meaning a small forceps for clamping a blood vessel
  • 2006: ursprache, meaning a parent language
  • 2005: appoggiatura, meaning an accessory embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone

Mr King dismisses these concerns, saying that the camaraderie and fast friendships that develop during the finals show the kids are not nursing deep wounds.

But while the battle scars fade, the memories remain.

Spelling bees are formative experiences for many Americans, which may help explain the growing popularity of adult competitive spelling.

In 1958, Michael Petrina finished 24th at Scripps. He missed "soricine", a word he's never had the chance to use since.

"I was kind of disappointed when the national spelling bee was over for me at 13," he says. "I thought my spelling career was washed up."

Fifty years later he happened across the National Senior Spelling Bee, a competition for people over 50 launched by the AARP, an American association for retired people, in 1996.

Last year, Mr Petrina won the Senior Bee, much to the delight of his 91-year-old father, who had accompanied him to the finals in DC all those years ago.

Mr Petrina watches Scripps each year, pausing his digital video recorder so he can spell the words before hearing the young competitors try.

"I would get slaughtered if I was to compete again in the children's competition," he jokes.

'Avenging a miss'

AARP spokeswoman Joanne Bowlby says that nearly all the senior contestants vividly remember competing as children - and they almost always have a story about the word they misspelled.

Brooklyn spelling bee An adult spelling bee in a Brooklyn bar started in 2004 (Photo: Eric Walton)

Marlene Harry of Indiana, 58, finished fourth in last year's Senior Bee. She still recalls bombing out after the first word in her fourth grade competition.

"I was totally humiliated," she says. These days, she enjoys the mental discipline of the AARP competition.

Less serious contests have cropped up in pubs across the country.

Jennifer Dziura co-hosts an adult spelling bee that has been held in a trendy Brooklyn bar fortnightly since 2004.

Ms Dziura's spellers - mostly 20-something New York hipsters who come partly to flirt with other smart people - don't have it quite as tough as the Scripps kids, but they are competitive nonetheless.

"Some people are reliving their childhood spelling bee victories or catastrophes," she says. "Maybe they want to reclaim some former glory or avenge a miss."

Fortunately if they do miss again, Ms Dziura says, the blow is softened with a beer.

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