In Scripps National Spelling Bee, one emerges victorious with dough

The definition was a light-colored Roman marble. The language of origin was from Latin-derived Italian. Part of speech: noun.

Syamantak Payra, a 12-year-old seventh-grader from Friendswood, Tex., asked Scripps National Spelling Bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly to use the word in a sentence.

“Brianna soon learned that running on wet cipollino in her favorite panda slippers is not the best way to deliver a birthday cake,” Bailly said Thursday night in the pressure cooker of a convention center ballroom at National Harbor.

Payra shifted onstage, took a deep breath and spelled: “C-I-P-O-L-I-N-O.”

Ding.

Three-time former National Spelling Bee participant Karla Miller challenges The Post newsroom to a spelling and vocabulary contest as the new rules this year require competitors to know definitions of words along with being able to spell them. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

He had missed the second “l.” He was gone, the 86th National Spelling Bee’s seventh-place finisher, having hit his mark on “panjandrum” and “sansculottic” and “catawba” before hearing the dreaded elimination bell.

It was the sound of doom at the World Series of Words.

Crowd favorite Amber Born attempted to preempt it when she flamed out on “hallali” after nailing five words (and plenty of punch lines) during the high-intensity finals.

“That’s not right,” she said immediately upon misspelling the word.

Ding.

The only speller who didn’t hear it: Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Bayside Hills, N.Y., won finally won after finishing third, third and ninth in the previous three years.

His winning word: “knaidel,” a small mass of leavened dough — appropriate, given that he collected $30,000 for the win.

He defeated Pranav Sivakumar, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Tower Lakes, Ill., who incorrectly spelled “cyanophycean” (a blue-green alga).

It marked the sixth consecutive year that a teenager of South Asian descent won the Scripps National Spelling Bee championship and the first time since 2008 that a boy took the title.

Knaidel is a German-derived word, and when it was given to Mahankali, the crowd groaned given the history: Mahankali was eliminated in 2011 and 2012 on German words. On Thursday, he correctly spelled “dehnstufe” late in the finals, then won with knaidel.

“The German curse has turned into a German blessing,” he said after his win.

The first elimination of the high-stakes finals — broadcast live, in prime time, on ESPN — came early in the first round, when Nikitha Chandran, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Valrico, Fla., misspelled “pathognomonic” (characteristic of a particular disease).

Ding.

The second round claimed Christal Schermeister, a 13-year-old from Pembroke Pines, Fla., who got a single letter wrong in “doryline” (a migratory tropical ant).

Ding.

Grace Remmer, a home-schooled 14-year-old from St. Augustine, Fla., spelled three words correctly in the finals (“greffier,” “lefse,” “emmeleia”) before stumbling over “melocoton,” a word, she explained later, she’d only seen once before.

Earlier, the annual bee added an extra element of disappointment to its final day when some of the semifinal survivors were dismissed without having misspelled a single word onstage.

Of the 18 young word nerds who spelled their two words successfully, only 11 advanced in the first year of a new format in which results of computer-based tests were used to determine the finalists. There was no elimination bell for the other seven — they just didn’t hear their names called at the end of the semifinals.

“It’s a little bit disappointing,” said Neha Seshadri, a 12-year-old semifinalist from Imlay City, Mich., who spelled two words correctly — but whose test scores from earlier in the week were lower than those of the other finalists.

“It’s kind of heartbreaking to see for those kids,” said Kavya Shivashankar, the 2009 national champion whose 11-year-old sister, Vanya, finished sixth this year after misspelling “zenaida” five rounds into the finals.

But the father of the winner applauded the new scoring system. “The tests are kind of an equalizer,” Sriniva Mahankali said before his son captured the championship. “There’s no more ‘killer round’ that leads to a bunch of eliminations in the semifinals. The test gives the better spellers an advantage.”

In another twist this year, the tests included multiple-choice vocabulary questions.

The day began with Christopher O’Connor at the microphone.

“You ready?” the bespectacled Bailly asked. “Maybe,” the Tucson 13-year-old said.

Or maybe not: With the two-minute word clock winding down, O’Connor incorrectly spelled “pultaceous,” which means having the consistency of porridge. He spelled it “pultatious” and the dreaded elimination bell rang out — and the tension on the ballroom stage ratcheted up.

With the champion’s gold trophy on a stage-left pedestal, spellers wrote out words on their hands, sleeves and name cards. They asked Bailly for definitions, languages of origin, alternative pronunciations and other lifelines.

“Cabotinage,” Bailly said.

“Can I maybe have another word?” Eva Kitlen said.

She could not. The 14-year-old eighth-grader from Niwot, Colo., misspelled the word and was eliminated. Ding.

“Please give me something I know,” Born said.

“Malacophilous,” Bailly said in his usual dulcet tones.

The audience snickered.

Born was clearly displeased with the word, which means pollinating by snails. But she nailed it, exulted and advanced.

Other young spellers were tripped up by “amimia,” “laureation,” “morosoph,” “diplodocus” and even more words that look like typos.

Shayley Martin — a seventh-grader from Virginia’s Montgomery County, and the only semi-local speller to survive the preliminary rounds — was eliminated near the end of the day’s first round when she stumbled over “sussultatory.”

More than 11 million students participated in the competition; just 281 made it to the national championship, which is actually an international competition: Spellers at the National Harbor came from eight countries, including China, South Korea, Ghana, Jamaica and Canada.

Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the 1981 national champion, hailed the contestants as “brilliant kids with high-reaching goals, truly some of the best of their generation. . . . You know they’re going to go far in life.”

The winner received $30,000 in cash, a $2,500 savings bond and reference books from Merriam-Webster and Encyclopedia Britannica. The runner-up was paid $12,500.

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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