The first year of the national spelling bee, in 1925, the winning word was g-l-a-d-i-o-l-u-s, a type of iris. This year, it came down to l-o-g-o-r-r-h-e-a.
Nupur Lala, 14, of Tampa, calmly and clearly spelled "logorrhea" after receiving the definition: "excessive talkativeness." Then for the first time since the competition began early Wednesday, she let her emotions fly, leaping into the air, jumping up and down and hooting. She held the gold trophy high over her head while the other 248 competitors and parents and coaches cheered.
Then Lala, a straight-A student who aspires to be a neurologist, held her first news conference.
She attributed her 12th-round victory to "studying," then paused and added, "some divine intervention and my family." She vowed to go shopping to celebrate.
Her mom, Meena Lala, said she was "very pleasantly surprised. I thought at the most we would be on ESPN and that was great," she said, referring to the cable network's exclusive live coverage of later rounds.
David Lewandowski, who came in second place after missing the word "opsimath," stood behind Lala, ignored by reporters for a few minutes, even though he finished in the 11th round of competition and clearly impressed the audience with his skill.
The two top spellers are both 14 years old and in the eighth grade. Lala won $10,000, two round-trip airline tickets and several other prizes. Lewandowski, of Munster, Ind., won $5,000.
Lala said she also participated in last year's bee but was disappointed when she was eliminated in the third round. She changed her studying technique and this year during the competition "didn't let myself think" about not winning.
It all paid off when Lewandowski was confronted with his final word.
"O-p-s-o-math," he said. If only he had changed that second "o" to an "i," things might have been different. Still, no one can accuse him of being an opsimath, which means "a person who begins to learn late in life."
This was the 72nd annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, a contest actually founded by the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1925, when nine contestants participated. In 1941, Scripps Howard acquired the rights to the program. The bee was not held during the World War II years of 1943, 1944 and 1945.
This week, participants were treated to sightseeing tours, a Memorial Day barbecue and a celebration "beach party" last night, held in a ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, site of the spelling bee.
The first round of the contest was held Wednesday. There were 248 contestants, one short of last year. Missing was an entry from Jamaica, home of last year's winner, the first non-American resident ever to win. A new rule prevented the Jamaicans from returning this year.
When Jody-Anne Maxwell won last year, her victory caused an uproar because that country's national contest was held in August, giving Maxwell many more months to study for the Scripps than any other competitor. So Scripps officials changed the rules, deciding that students competing in 1999 had to qualify in meets held after Feb. 1.
The problem, said Karin E. Daley, overseas publications manager for the Gleaner newspaper of Jamaica, is that the island's competition had been held in August for 40 years.
"Our objective was to identify a champion in spelling in Jamaica. Coming to Scripps Howard was not part of our original agenda," said Daley. "We set the month to suit ourselves."
After the controversy, Scripps asked the Gleaner to be the official Jamaican sponsor, to reschedule that country's national bee and to participate in the American spelling bee. Daley attended this week's bee at the invitation of Scripps Howard, and an agreement was reached, meaning that the Caribbean island will send a student to the 2000 competition.
Contestants employeed bee practices that have probably remained the same over the years.
Some spellers pondered their words by staring at the floor, as if clues were embedded there. Others spoke each letter with their voices rising higher and higher, until the last letter stood in the air like a question mark. Then they waited to see if their guesses were right.
The losers heard the ting of a bell, received applause, then were met at the end of the stage by a bigger person with a gentle arm and led to a black curtain that parted and seemed to swallow them whole.
On the other side of the curtain was the comfort room, where an ex-contestant could quench a thirst with a soda or eat a large brownie or big cookie -- away from the media.
As the rounds whizzed by, the applause roared louder and the cheers escalated, with obvious appreciation for the increasing difficulty of the words and the accomplishment of the spellers.
Josef Braga, of West Palm Beach, Fla., stumbled on t-r-a-i-n-e-a-u in the fifth round, spelling it as t-r-a-i-n-o-t. "Shucks, this was my first televised round, and I got dinged," he said.
Braga, 14, found comfort in a brownie. "Being on television sure makes a guy hungry," he said.
A look at winning words over the years might say something about our country's history. Just what, is another question.
But it's hard to imagine that the word that won in 1936 would be problematic for any child of the '90s. The word: i-n-t-e-r-n-i-n-g.
CAPTION: Nupur Lala shows off her trophy at spelling bee, where she lost in the third round last year. At right, she leaps after spelling the winning word: "logorrhea."