"Tension" said Dante Marzetta, the Official Pronouncer, enunciating clearly into the microphone.
"T-E-N-S-I-O-N," replied Erica Lelle, of Page Elementary School, aptly characterizing the mood of last week's Northern Virginia Spelling Contest.
The latest game of orthographic roulette was off to a resounding start, spinning over 100 children, from as many schools, into various stages of anxiety.
The spelling bee was dominated by the phonetic mishaps that reflect the general state of the English language -- few words are what they seem to be. Try asking an Italian to pronounce "lieutenancy" or a Russian to spell "qualmish."
Many of the would-be wordsmiths were momentarily silenced when asked to spell a word obviously being confronted for the first time.
"Profiterole," boomed the announcer. "P-R" began Meagan Hanrahan, of Springfield Estates School, who paused to ask, "Can you tell me what it is?"
The definition -- a miniature cream puff pastry -- did little to help as the word finally came out "P-R-U-T" before the omnipresent bell rang Meagan out of the competition.
The bee, held last weekend at George Mason Junior-Senior High School in Falls Church, quickly took its toll on contestants. "Yautia," "poltergeist," "chassepot," scherzo," "xystus" and "triage" spelled -- or mispelled -- defeat for a string of competitors.
In round two -- a devastating round for most of the "confident" word gamblers -- one young lady, a pink and pig-tailed "undine," hindered by the bee's rule of "estoppel," (refusal to allow an individual to contradict previous statement, of course), sufferred "detonation" at the hands of the announcer's "assassin" because of "incompetent" spelling and phonetic "misfeasance." She was "shanghaied" off the stage to the recovery room "hospice" by the event's "pallbearers." And, therefore, missed her chance at the "limelight."
There, she joined the first young victim, Craig Rush, of Meadowland Elementary School, who just couldn't make the loop around the bee's "parallel" bars. "I'm so mad. It was just so stupid to add an extra 'r'," he grunted as he slurped a consolatory drink before returning to a pick-up game of hangman -- another game of spelling.
Meanwhile, on stage, the stakes increased and the players were reduced to three -- Scott Vance, Thomas Bergert and Erica Long. No more introductory or intermediate words culled from the annals of the "Words of a Champion" for these high rollers. The ante had been driven up to then final words. This was the big time.
"Harrumphs" and "unbowdlerized" words were traded off for 45 minutes before the trio was trimmed to two, Erica Long's fate was settled when she misspelled "setteable."
"Jambalaya" pronounced the announcer. "Jumblia?" asked Thomas Bergert, from Greenbriar East Elementary School. "J-U-M," barely dribbled from his mouth before the bell tolled from the judge's corner.
Scott Vance, an 11-year-old from the Congressional Schools of Virginia in Alexandria, took up the challenge and quickly spelled "Jambalaya."
Then came the final test, and the chance to compete in the National Spelling Bee later this month in the District.
"Chaplaincy," said the pronouncer.
Scott didn't blink an eye, as he methodically spelled his way to his second championship in a row.
The audience rose. The bee had a king.