Top Spellers Move to Bee's Final Rounds

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 30, 2007; 8:27 PM

WASHINGTON -- For most kids, the appearance of the word "Bewusstseinslage" on any kind of test would be reason to shriek in horror. For Matthew Evans, it was cause for joy.

"My favorite word!" said the 12-year-old boy from Albuquerque, N.M.

The 80th Scripps National Spelling Bee began by reducing the record field of 286 spellers to 59 on Wednesday. Those who survived will return for the semifinals and finals Thursday, and the champion will be crowned on prime-time national television.

Most of the winnowing was done with a 25-word multiple-choice test, followed by three oral rounds that featured a display of confidence, nervousness and befuddlement _ not to mention sheer relief when a guess proved correct.

"Yes!" exclaimed 12-year-old Tia Thomas of Coarsegold, Calif., who pumped her fists and skipped back to her seat after correctly spelling "periostracum" (the hard covering of a mollusk shell).

"I was pretty sure I knew the word," Tia said. "But the 'peri' part was guessing."

Matthew and Tia, both in the national bee for the fourth time, are two of the favorites to become the champion. The winner receives $35,000 cash, a $5,000 scholarship, a $2,500 savings bond and a complete set of reference works.

Achieving that goal will require outlasting 13-year-old Samir Patel of Colleyville, Texas, who is back for the fifth year after placing third, 27th, second and 14th.

With his grandfather from India _ visiting the United States for the first time _ sitting on the front row, Samir breezed through "decor" in the preliminary round, and "trumpery" (of low quality) and "sunglo" (a green Chinese tea) in the quarterfinals.

"I'm a lot more prepared than I was the first year," Samir said. "I'm not as nervous, and I already know sort of the routine, so I'm not so much worried about 'Am I going to be there on time?' 'Am I going to make a mistake in walking down the stage?'"

Far removed from the glamour of the rounds that will be televised on ESPN and ABC on Thursday, the bee started early in the morning in a setting that more closely resembled a classroom of students taking the SAT.

Spellers from English-speaking parts of the world filled in ovals with their No. 2 pencils during the multiple-choice test, which included words ranging from "icicle" to "ylem" (a hypothetical substance from the early universe). Matthew was happily surprised when he saw that the 25th word was Bewusstseinslage (a state of consciousness, pronounced bay-VOOHST-sines-lahg-eh), which he likes "just because it's so weird-sounding."

"I was like, 'Oh my goodness. Wow! This is awesome,'" said Matthew, who got 24 of 25 correct.

Then all of the spellers were given their only guaranteed moment on the Grand Hyatt's ballroom stage: a chance to spell one word before the audience of parents, friends and judges.

"Macaroni _ what does it mean?" asked 14-year-old Michael Yeh of Kokomo, Ind., exercising his right to ask for a definition before correctly spelling the popular food.

The multiple choice test (worth 25 points) and the preliminary oral round (worth three points) narrowed the field to 107. Thirteen more were eliminated in the next round, and 35 heard the telltale bell signaling an incorrect response in the day's final round.

Every year there are spellers who have their own quirks to help them stay focused. This year, some wrote letters in the air, others on their hands.

Jonathan Horton, 14, of Gilbert, Ariz., who finished in a tie for sixth last year, has developed a rhythm in which he turns his head and appears to feign a cough several times while spelling a word. He did it four times while working through the 10 letters of "exhilarate."

"I say a couple of letters into my hand, and then I say them out loud," said Jonathan, who also advanced to the semifinals. "I do that because I don't want to say the wrong letter out loud."

Aishwarya Pastapur of Overland Park, Kan., made her feelings known by wearing a T-shirt with the words "mishpelt werds eeritate me." She displayed no irritation whatsoever by correctly spelling "enumerated" in the preliminaries, but she was stumped by "coadunation" (union of a large body) in the quarterfinals.

Kennyi Aouad, 11, of Terre Haute, Ind., became a crowd favorite after he couldn't stop laughing when he was given the funky-sounding word "Sardoodledom" (a melodramatic plot). He finally composed himself and asked all sorts of questions about the word _ definition, part of speech, alternate pronunciations, use in a sentence _ then tried to get an unallowable hint by asking: "Is it kind of like kingdom?" He could hardly believe it when he spelled the word correctly.


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