He asked him to define the word. He asked him to use it in a sentence. He asked him what part of speech it was. And then he asked him to repeat the word. To repeat the definition. To repeat the word . . .
Finally, there was only one other question the creatively desperate speller could think to ask the pronouncer: "Is that everything I can ask for?"
The audience at the 59th annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee burst into laughter, and Day 2, the final day, was off to a light start.
"It's everying I've got," pronouncer Alex Cameron confessed.
And so Speller No. 3 Kit Condill, spelled:
Bing. He was out.
"I was thinking 'imperial,'" Condill, the humorist, said during a break. "I didn't connect it with empire.'" If he had, he perhaps would have groped his way toward the correct word: Empiricist.
Wednesday and Thursday, 174 spellers, their parents, their coaches, their escorts, the Spelling Bee officials, almost 200 journalists and dozens of cameras filled the Presidential Room of the Capital Hilton, scene of the spelldown.
But with all of that it was the weak chime of a desk bell that filled the room.
A little "bing." An obnoxious "bing." Even the competition's victorious speller, Jon Pennington, an eighth-grader from Harrisburg, Pa., didn't get through the two-day competition unscathed by the bell.
It happened in Round 9, the showdown. The letter-to-letter combat between Speller 102 (Pennington) and Speller 22 (Kenneth Larson of Tequesta, Fla.) began with "parure."
Speller 102 asked the definition (a matched set of jewelry or ornaments worn together), and offered up "P-A-R-O-U-R." Bing. Speller 22 took a turn, adding an "e" to the chaos. "P-A-R-O-U-E-R." Bing.
Both in error, the two fumbled their ways through "utricle" -- each approaching the word with an "etu" attack. Bing. Bing.
Then came a few more rounds, with one correctly spelled word after the other: Aioli. Pomegranate. Diphthongize. Juvenescence. Proboscis, Lorgnette.
And finally came "kaolinic" -- not, as Speller 22 wished it, "C-H-A-Y-O-L-I-N-I-C."
And that left Pennington to turn in the correct letters, in the correct order, for the obscure word that refers to the white clay used in making porcelain -- the word that gave us Kaopectate.
And then the winning word: Odontalgia.
Engulfed in a swarm of microphones, tape recorders and inquisitors, the soft-spoken and sweaty champion, whose glasses slipped to the bottom of his nose despite poke after poke, said he hadn't heard the word before but he knew the roots. Hence, odontalgia, a toothache, without a bing.
Condill, who was planning to retreat to his room for a better view (closed-circuit TV) of the match, was resigned to his defeat. His chief guideline had been: "Don't study once you get to Washington."
Yesterday's chief humorist other than Condill was Ronald Fein, of Kingston, N.Y. Given two variations on the pronunciation of "pellucid," he first asked the pronouncer, "Could you tell me which pronunciation you feel would be most helpful?" and finally, before diving in, "Are you sure that word isn't for the guy behind me?"
No. "Pellucid" belonged to Fein. He offered only a reasonable fascimile, "P-A-L-L-U-C-I-D," and found himself on his way to the Comfort Room.
In Spelling Bee terms, the Comfort Room is where the 173 misspellers pull themselves together. Pretzels, potato chips, sodas, three boxes of Kleenex Boutique facial tissues and a hug from Judy Stacey, the comforter.
In hotel terms, the room is really the Continental Room; it is adorned with a polished little plaque warning Capacity 40."