AN ORGY of orthography occurred in Washington last week, involving 120 youngsters well below their majority. As quickly as you could shout "sarcophagus" (s-a-r-c-o-p-h-a-g-u-s), however, a 13-year-old youngter named Paige Pipkin broke the spell, and the 54th annual National Spelling Bee was over.
No matter that many of us -- though not Paige Pipkin -- would have problems rattling off the correct spelling of such familiar entries in the household Webster as vilipend, esurient, numen, susurrant and (the word that brought victory) sarcophagus. In a world of gloomy pedagogues who fidget their nights away counting declining national SAT scores, the arrival each year of the "Bee" finals invariably lifts the spirits.
Once again, as in past years, the youngsters displayed a full measure of perseverance and good sportsmanship. Take Miss Pipkin. After coming in second in the 1980 finals, she returned this year to unveil a new -- and winning -- style, a slow-paced, measured response distinctly different from the quick-trigger answers given by a number of other entrants: "I used to buzz through words," Miss Pipkin later told the Associated Press, "and I missed them." As for her comparably alliterative runner-up, a 12-year-old named Jason Johnson, he told reporters that since his newspaper-sponsor does not allow repeaters, he will not be coming back in 1982. Too bad, we thought, but not Jason Johnson: "I beat out my best friend to get here, and I'd like to see him get a chance next year. I'd really like that."
So would we. Most of all, however, we'd really like his friend -- if he wins next year's contest -- to be much like this year's winner and runner-up in style and temperament. Chances are that this will be the case. Chances are, also, that next year's runner-up will stumble on what we might call a Washington word, just as Jason Johnson did this year and Paige Pipkin the previous year. Mr. Johnson missed "philippic," and Miss Pipkin got caught on "glitch." Moral: Before beginning the questioning next year, the sponsors of the National Spelling Bee should take the kids on a careful tour of Congress and the White House.