Oxon Hill — If my spellcheck is to be believed, the Scripps National Spelling Bee that just concluded consisted of a group of very talented, dedicated kids… spelling completely made-up nonsense words for several hours.
The 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee finals have come to a close, after more than two hours of knock-down, drag-out spelling. The confetti still strews the stage.
The winner? Bayside Hills’ Arvind Mahankali. The winning word? Knaidel. It’s a noun. It means “a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming.”
But type it, and a red line appears underneath it.
In fact, that was a theme of the evening. Nearly every time one of the indefatigable 11 finalists, the creme de la spelling creme of the 281 hopefuls who came to Washington to compete in the bee, would spell a word, Microsoft Word would insist that the word did not exist.
Of the 57 words in the finals, spell check was adamant that 48 were not actual words.
“Nope,” it would say when you typed in the name of a small boat for catching tuna (thonnier) or a Hebrew word for a place of destruction (Abaddon), or a word meaning hazel-colored (avellaneous). There were whole hosts of remarkable words that had come from centuries away — medieval reed instruments, bugle calls, chests of drawers, even a word of Greek origin meaning “hatred of new ideas” — misocainea — being turned away at the door by the officious, reproachful red line. Lethean, a mythological term meaning conducive to forgetfulness? Forget about it.
When Sriram Hathwar went out on “ptyalagogue,” a word that means “something that makes you salivate” Rembert Browne jokingly tweeted “No shame in that Sriram, ‘ptyalagogue’ isn’t even a word, which is probably why you got it wrong, because they gave you a made up word.” Which is funny, and, yes, we probably aren’t going to make ‘ptyalagogue’ happen, if our success with ‘fetch’ is any indication, but — if we are trusting the devices we use to write on, it actually doesn’t appear to be a real word. And it is. And it’s actually a cool word that could come in handy, if only more people knew about it.
Words are like paths from one idea to another. If you keep making a certain connection, eventually desire creates a trail. “YOLO” and “
These days, familiarizing yourself with the contents of the dictionary is more like archaeology than anything else. What are these weird old things? Who used them? What were they for? And who even owns a dictionary? If you run across a word you don't know, you can Google it. But when are you likely to run across a word you don't know?
The Scripps official book readily admits that many of these words are camp friends -- you encounter them once, become intimately familiar with their origins, habits and quirks, and then never hear from them again. ("When will the spellers ever see or use these words again?" "Maybe never. And that's fine by us.")
We've gained convenience. Dictionaries are bulky. Whoever said words don't hurt you, as the old joke runs, never dropped a dictionary on his foot. But we've lost something.
These days, spelling is just another thing we delegate to Benevolent Programs, along with knowledge of geography (there's an app for that), knowledge of history (there's Wikipedia) and knowledge of how to speak to other human beings (for God's sake, send a text, you weirdo!). But as my spell check flagged down word after winning word, the wisdom of this plan seemed increasingly dubious. We might never use any of these arcane, impossible words of German, Hebrew, Greek, French, and even Unknown origin, but it's nice to know that they would be in our most commonly consulted dictionaries, if we needed them. And they weren't.
Arvind and the other spellers in D.C. this week are now in an unenviable club of people smarter than the programs we trust to run our lives. It's like that episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza gets a card in Trivial Pursuit with a misprint, insisting the Moops invaded Spain. His opponent is correct, but the card doesn't know that.
We rely on the devices we type on and the programs we type in to know what we mean and to correct us. But it turns out they don't know half of what we mean. When you watch a spelling bee, you realize that there are so many words for things that we wish there were a word for that it’s mind-boggling.
So thank heaven for the Spelling Bee. It’s a triumph of the human memory over the hive mind. Ray Bradbury, in “Fahrenheit 451,” thought the mind was the safest place to carry words you cared about. At the Spelling Bee, it looks like he’s right.