A Red-Letter Day at National Spelling Bee: Kan. Student Is First, Va. Boy 2nd

The Post Sports Bog's Dan Steinberg hits the floor of the National Spelling Bee to talk to some top competitors, along with ESPN's Erin Andrews and event host Tom Bergeron, about the "sport," intimidation factors and the real-life value of spelling.Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post
By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

A tangle of words, letters and anxiety filled the halls of the D.C. hotel where the culminating rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee were held yesterday. One by one, seats opened up on the blue-and-red stage as the words that students traced on their palms turned out to be incorrect.

Finally, minutes past 10 p.m., and about 12 hours after the day's competition began, Centreville home-schooler Tim Ruiter, 12, missed the word "Maecenas," meaning a generous benefactor. That gave Kavya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., the victory after she spelled "Laodicean," meaning lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics. It was the 13-year-old girl's fourth trip to the nationals.

"I've learned so many things, so many roots and . . . discipline, focus," Kavya said late last night.

She will take home a trophy, $37,500, a collection of reference works -- and glory.

Tim said that he plans to be back next year and that he'll take only a short break -- "I'll go to bed" -- before he resumes word study. "I'm glad that she won, because this was her last year," he said.

Throughout the day, eliminated contestants filtered into the hallway, stunned by defeat and the scrum of journalists competing to interview them. Some gathered with their families around a flat-screen TV with a live feed, which heightened tension by displaying the proper spellings before students responded.

The high-gloss event, televised on ESPN and prime-time ABC, is perhaps the one time a year that sportscasters cover the English language with the same alacrity they do college football. The contest bore the trappings of an athletic event, with sweeping boom cameras, heavily made-up announcers and 41 semifinalists, who had been winnowed from a field of 293.

Rapt parents pumped fists and muttered about the easiness of the words "grenache" and "dauerlauf." Spellers brought with them back stories as complicated as wrestlers', and they battled Webster's Third New International Dictionary as words including "flittern" and "sententious" helped decide a champion.

Early drama swirled around two students who as eighth-graders had one last chance to win the championship. Kavya, the eventual victor, had tied for fourth place last year, and Sidharth Chand, 13, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was back after seizing second place. They were consecutive in the rotation, and both said they want to become neurosurgeons.

But Sidharth misspelled "apodyterium," a dressing room in an ancient Greek or Roman bath, in an early championship round. He buried his head in his hands.

Earlier, Sidharth said he was attracted to words and spelling because "one little word can express such a complex idea."

Tim earned his seat in the finals by nailing the words "clogwyn," a precipice or cliff, and "alastor," any of certain avenging deities or spirits. He said after the semifinal that clogwyn was his new favorite word.

And one student, three-time bee participant Kennyi Aouad of Terre Haute, Ind., pleased the crowd by bantering with Jacques Bailly, the contest's official pronouncer (a past bee champ who puts his philosophy doctorate to use with a sonorous flat, Midwestern intonation of each word, definition and language of origin). Before Kennyi spelled his championship-qualifying word, he smiled and put on his glasses. He said afterward that the glasses didn't make him smarter but helped him read Bailly's lips when he pronounced "austausch."

One writer exulted in the aesthetic pleasures of the contest, even if at first glance the talent to craft a sparkling sentence doesn't have much do with the ability to spell even the most twisty word correctly.

"I think that spelling is quite beautiful," said Anne Fadiman, a Yale professor who has written several books about words and language. "The fact that a difficult word has only one correct spelling -- it's like writing a sonnet that has 14 lines. You have to sign up for a particular meter and a particular rhyme scheme. . . . Good spellers have an intuitive relationship with language."

Some tips about spelling skills emerged over the day.

Zachary Zagorski, 13, of Oceanside, N.Y., who was eliminated during the semifinal, said he found French words the most difficult -- "all those silent letters and sounds that don't make it into English."

Four-time participant Josephine Kao, 14, who misspelled alongside Zachary, praised the logic of German words. "They sound really hard, but they make a lot of sense when you break them down," she said.

Elimination was tough for some.

" 'Gastaldo?' Can I have a definition?" Josephine asked before she misspelled the word for a steward in a nobleman's household in the semifinal. When a bell rang, signaling that she was out of the contest, her face drooped. Several repeat contestants gave her a standing ovation.

For Josephine, an eighth-grader from Roseville, Calif., it was her last time on the stage after years of practice.

She said she fixes words in her mind as she goes through her day, even memorizing the spellings of the chemicals on her tube of toothpaste. "I think I'll probably still study a bit," she said afterward. "Otherwise, I wouldn't know what to do."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company