At the end, as it happens every year, there were only two left standing in the 54th annual National Spelling Bee: 13-year-old Paige Pipkin, the pride of El Paso, and 12-year-old Jason Johnson of Benton Harbor, Mich. They had survived a dozen grueling rounds to reach the denouement -- which began with Pipkin's correct spelling of "denouement."
Beginning with 120 contestants on Wednesday, the annual Armageddon of orthography had wiped out more than half the hopefuls on the first day. A mere 46 remained standing as the fifth round opened at 8:30 yesterday morning, and the casualties mounted vertiginously. Forms of misspelling were protean (through "portean" was spelled correctly). One contestant might have been a fit subject for an algometer after spelling it "algameter," the next had to lower her gonfalon after spelling it "gonfalan," and a third was removed from the contestants' milieu after trying "milut." But other contestants handled "athodyd" (a kind of jet engine) with flying colors, "hyperbole" in a style to inspire it and "nonpareil" with a flair that was . . . well . . . nonpareil.
The presidential ballroom of the Capitol Hilton was jammed with reporters, relatives, teachers and enthusiasts from 41 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and Mexico, as well as autochthons. It was no place for victims of ochlophobia.
Although they came successfully through a rathskeller and digested "souffle" with no visible discomfort, contestants seemed to have trouble, on the whole, with exotic terms related to food. "Seder" and "bialys" both proved too much to swallow, as did "cappuccino" and "cyclamate." Confronted with "marinara," however, one contestant asked whether it was related to "marinade." After a long pause, she was told, "yes," and spelled it triumphantly, only to be felled, a round later, by "rotogravure." Contestants frequently asked about a word's nationality, meaning or pedigree or requested to hear it used in a sentence, upon which the official pronouncer, Alex Cameron, would embody it in an apophthegm.
His pronunciation may have been American standard, at this point in our cultural history, but if so it indicates a gradual erosion of vowel precision in our speech, with vowels as diverse as "i" and "e" frequently fuzzing into the indiscriminate vowel sound (a sort of "uh") that linguists call "schwa." At one point he had a dialogue with a speller on the second syllable of "syncretism." "Is that 'creh?'" he was asked. "It's 'cruh,'" he answered. But a whole nation, not an individual, is to blame for this kind of pronunciation, which is not an idiosyncrasy.
Part of the problem for English spellers is the sheer richness of the language, the diversity of its roots in Greek, Latin, French, German and more than a dozen other linguistic systems that range from Hebrew and Indian languages to Japanese and vary enormously in their phonetic structures. One of the words successfully handled was "hibachi"; others were "shekel" and "dolcissimo." No other language presents its speakers with such polyglot etymological heterogeneity.
In the final rounds, when Pipkin and Johnson were mano a mano, the tension could be heard in their young voices -- particularly Pipkin's, which hovered on the verge of sobbing during the last few words and rose to the verge of something like hysteria at the end -- even though her final word was one that she had studied. She came in second in last year's contest and, since she is an eighth-grader, this was to be her last shot at No. 1. Her opponent, a year younger and a seventh-grader, was obviously less seasoned, but he looked like a champion in round 11 when he correctly spelled "corymb" (certainly one of the toughest words in the whole competition) while the other contestants were being felled by "apocope," "syncretism" and "polyonymous."
"Denouement" and "bosky," "susurrant" and "residuum" presented no serious problems in the next two rounds. Then came "vitrine," which was pronounced "vuhtrine" and misspelled ("vatrine" and "vitreen") by both contestants. After that failure and a last-minute rescue by her opponent's corresponding failure, a perceptable tremor crept into Pipkin's voice. But she managed "scrab" while he got past "rictus," and then she picked her way slowly through "obreptitious" as though it were a mine field, while he stumbled on "Philippie," giving her an opening for the coup de grace.
"Sarcophagus," intoned Cameron, and Pipkin went through it very deliberately, pausing for almost a second after each letter, barely able to speak through the strain in her voice: "s-a-r-c-o-p-h-a-g-u-s." In that sarcophagus were buried Jason Johnson's hopes, at least this year, for the ultimate kudos.