Anne-Marie Mitroi Sprenger, 13, of Provo, Utah fidgets at the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals in National Harbor, MD. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

On Tuesday, the Scripps National Spelling Bee announced a momentous change to its time-honored format: Starting this year, multiple-choice vocabulary tests will become part of the competition. In other words, contestants must also know the meanings of the words they spell. While critics of rote memorization high-fived, traditionalists objected — largely on the grounds that the change will make the contest too darn hard. Do they have a point? Read on. Below are the five most recent winning words and the efforts of local notables to define them.

Michael Dirda , Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic who reviews regularly for The Washington Post

2012, guetapens

His definition: A Franglais speaker confronting the Romans in Avignon told them that, in order to cross the river, they needed to “guetapens.” Hence the famous folk song, “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”

Merriam-Webster definition: Ambush, snare, trap.

Michael Witmore, director of the
Folger Shakespeare Library

2011, cymotrichous

His definition: Resembling the sounds of the romantic advances made by one ape to another.

Merriam-Webster definition: Having the hair wavy, “a cymotrichous race.”

Linda Chavez, syndicated columnist and former Reagan administration

2010, stromuhr

Her definition: It sounds like a science term: a single-cell amoeba.

Merriam-Webster definition: A rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of blood flow through an artery.

Francis Collins , director of the
National Institutes of Health

2009, Laodicean

His definition: Somebody who lives in Laodicea; people who’ve become lukewarm.

Ken Burns , documentary filmmaker

His definition:

I think it refers to an ancient church but also an attitude of indifference to things formally religious.


Merriam-Webster definition: Lukewarm or indifferent in religion or politics.

Miriam Webster of Edgewater

2008, guerdon

Her definition: A pain that you get in your stomach.

Merriam-Webster definition: Reward, recompense.