If there were a creative speller of the year award, it should probably go to 13-year-old Lori Flynn of Anchorage, Alaska, Who encountered the word "bourgeoisie" - evidently for the first time - Wednesday afternoon in the grand ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel.
"B-o-r," Lori began in the sixth round of the National Spelling Bee, then paused before asking, bravely, "Can you tell me what language it comes from?"
The news about French offered no help, and the word finally came out "borzwauzze," A little bell rang, and Lori left the stage.
She was not alone. At the beginning of the first round, 109 spellers aged 10 to 14, all champions in their home towns, were lined up for a shot at the $1,000 first prize - finally won yesterday afternoon by Katie Kerwin, 13, of Denver.
They were a record number, three more than last year and exactly 100 more than participated in the first National Spelling Bee in 1925. By the end of the first day, six rounds and 495 words later, they had been reduced to only 32 18 girls and 14 boys).
The selection of a champion begins with more than 8 million fifth-to-eighth graders entering local competitions in 39 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The contests are sponsored by local newspapers - hard-core supporters of print culture.
As a result, the National Spelling Bee is covered by a larger press corps than many presidential press conferences. Nearly half of the enormous Grand Ballroom is filled with press tables, and there is much frenzied activity amid the ashtrays, pitchers of ice water and freshly sharpened pencils.
Behind the press sit the spectators - mostly proud parents or other escorts supplied by the sponsoring newspaper. There, too, there is constant motion. Casually dressed fans rush up to the front to take picture as a favorite speller approaches the moment of truth. Or they move over to the sidelines to offer consolation and take the numbered placard from around a contestant's neck - after the little bell rings.
It rang for some words that sounded like killers - or their victims: "masochist," "whodunit," "fulgurant," "vivisection" and "dissident." Some were merely tricky: "pharmaceutical," "eleemosynary" and "raillery," for example. And some were exotic: "moderne," "jabot," "jaleo," "umlaut."
And some illustrated the element of orthographic roulette in a spelling bee - the inscrutable, random forces that determine which word will come to which speller. "Seder," for example is a word that should offer no problems to a Jewish child, but it was assigned to 12-year-old James Surowiecki of San Juan, P.R., who spelled it (logically but incorrectly) "s-a-d-e-r."
"Blepharism" (a spasm of the eyelids) is seldom fatal, and the two final contestants, Julie Won, 14, of Harrisburg, Pa., and Katie Kerwin both survived it, although - or rather because - both misspelled it.
The rules changed in the final knockout rounds yesterday, when there were only two contestants left: If one spelled a word wrong, the opponent had to spell it and another word correctly or both got another chance. By that time, the game had become hardball - no more of the simple words like "periphery" or "baroness" that claimed victims in the early rounds. By round 8, the contestants were handling such verbal knuckleballs as "pulque," "knurl" and "symminct."
It took only 50 words to get from round 8 to final round 22. of those, 22 were misspelled - and no wonder: "periotic," "ecuelle," "eupeptic," "carapace," "quenelle."
Finally, Julie stumbled on "virescence" and Katie spelled it right; then Katie correctly spelled "maculature" ("an impression made from an intaglio engraved plate to remove ink from the recessed areas").
"M-a-c-u-l-a-t-u-r-e," she said slowly, waiting for a moment to hear the bell ring as it had done more than 100 times, then jumping in the air to show her delight as the last survivor of 8 million defeats.
Later, more calmly, she admitted that she had been guessing: "I just spelled it phonetically. I'd never heard of it before." The phonetic method had not worked with "cappucino" ("c-a-p-p-i-a-c-i-n-o") earlier, but then it was less critical because Julie had already missed it.
But she added that she had known "most" of the words she spelled - including "ochlocracy" and "dichotomous," which leave little chance for guesswork.
Efforts to standardize spelling began not long after the invention of printing, but until the early 19th century (when spelling bees began to be popular) many words were being printed in personal, idiosyncratic forms that would look odd today. Agreement is still not complete between England and America; and in the electronic era, the commercial use of such striking spellings as "kwick," "EZ" and "kleen" is sowing confusion in some young minds.
In the age of Shakespeare (whose name is spelled in a shocking variety of ways in different documents), people would have had trouble understanding the meaning of a spelling bee, or accepting the idea that there was only one correct way to spell a word.
And George Bernard Shaw would have understood perfectly but found it a waste of time. In his life, he devoted much energy to promoting a completely phonetic spelling system for the English language, and in his will he left a substantial endowment for the cause.
But Thorstein Veblen, the economist who invented the idea of "conspicuous consumption," had one of the most radical views on the "futile classicism" of English spelling.
"English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste," Veblen wrote. "It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection." CAPTION: Picture, Katie Kerwin, by AP