The “perennial powerhouse spellers from OCLC” have become a veritable fixture at Leadership Worthington’s annual spelling bee.
So described by the Worthington News in a March 25, 2009 article, the three-person team may have different members from year to year, but their shared propensity for spelling has earned them legendary status in my mind. They’ve taken the title numerous times, confidently rattling off the correct letters that make up words like “legerdemain” and “apotheosis.” But they’ve also faltered on tricky words, like “vargueno” in 2014 and “recumbentibus” during the final round in 2009.
Ever since the “c” in “discipline” stung me as one of the last spellers standing in my Columbus School for Girls third-grade spelling bee, spelling words has been a thrilling challenge, but few people I know share my enjoyment of it. A little rain couldn’t keep me away any longer from watching my kindred spirits in action at this year’s spelling bee.
Spelling bees are an American tradition. In our country’s early days, they were an important educational tool known as a spelling match, but as the years went on, they became an entertaining opportunity to gather and have fun. The Hoosier Schoolmaster: A Story of Backwoods Life In Indiana, written by Edward Eggleston and originally published in installments in 1871, includes an account of a spelling match. The book was so popular that spelling contests became a craze. Communities started holding spelling “bees,” the vogue event where neighbors came together to participate in a shared task and have fun while doing so. Spelling bees have remained popular, even leading to a national competition for young people known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
In American Bee, James Maguire described the spelling bee as “a yearly Woodstock for the language arts crowd.” I thought about that as I took a seat in the Worthington Kilbourne High School auditorium and waited for things to get under way, watching each competing three-member team arrive and take their places on the stage decorated with yellow, black and white balloons.
Now in its 23rd year, the spelling bee is presented by Leadership Worthington, a nonprofit organization offering leadership programs for those who live or work in the Worthington city school district in order to make our community even better. Local businesses sponsor the teams, and participants win various prizes donated by various organizations. Proceeds from the event go toward Leadership Worthington’s scholarships for adult, high school and middle school leadership programs. A youth spelling bee takes place two hours before the adult spelling bee.
This year, the OCLC team competed against the Miss Spellings from Worthington Kilbourne High School; the Worthington Noon Lions Club; Congregation Beth Tikvah; the AP Lang Gang from Worthington Kilbourne High School; St. John’s Episcopal Church; The Dewey Decimators from the Friends Foundation of Worthington Libraries; the Worthington Linworth Kiwanis Club; Gary Smith Race & Charities; the Dictionary Divas from Thomas Worthington High School; Worthington Resource Pantry; and the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce. You can see the teams’ pictures here.
Keenan Blanke, an employee of Worthington Libraries and president of the Leadership Worthington board, was the master of ceremonies. Peter Insabella, a veteran of the OCLC team, was the pronouncer. Judges were Marc Schare of the Worthington Board of Education; Kathryn Paugh, executive director of the Worthington Chamber of Commerce; and Lieutenant Jerry Strait of the Worthington Police Department.
Insabella referred to dictionary.com to pronounce each word, define it and use it in a sentence, if a team requested that he do so. The team spelling the word had 30 seconds to come up with the correct spelling. Each team had one pass option.
First-round words included mercerize, Sudoku, geocache, enclave, meteorological, whelk, monotonous, abyss, bergamot, surfeit and solenoid, which decimated The Dewey Decimators. Since they were the first team to leave the stage, they received a dictionary for their prize, courtesy of the Worthington Libraries.
Guayabera, jocund, chock, incarceration, pernicious, infinitesimal and acinarious were the third round’s words. That last one, that botanic adjective, did in the Miss Spellings, but as a consolation, they received free tickets to that weekend’s Worthington Community Pancake Day benefiting Worthington high school athletic programs.
And then came the fourth round. Camphor, pilaster, dilapidated, lattice…and then the OCLC team had to spell the word meaning those ramparts built around the top of a castle that have regularly spaced gaps for firing arrows or guns. “C-r-e-n-o-l-a-t-i-o-n-s?,” they asked. Sadly, I whispered, “Oh, no – it’s c-r-e-n-e-l-l-a-t-i-o-n-s.” No victory this year for my friends.
Words became progressively more difficult to spell as the bee went on. Teams still surviving in the fifth round spelled elucidate and retrorse. Then came catachresis, and the Worthington Linworth Kiwanis Club decided to pass. Expropriate kept them in the game. Pullulate stumped the Gary Smith Race & Classics team, so they passed in favor of the word for the Russian vehicle in which the passengers sit astride or sideways on a long, narrow bench. They learned the hard way that it’s spelled “droshky.”
By this time, it was getting to feel like Ten Little Indians, that classic Agatha Christie mystery also known as And Then There Were None.
Inarticulate and psoriasis started off the sixth round. Arriviste earned the Kiwanis Club team not only third place, but also three ride-alongs in a Worthington police cruiser.
The seventh round was an ecumenical contest between the teams from Congregation Beth Tikvah and St. John’s Episcopal Church. Philippic – any kind of nasty speech, like the orations delivered by Demosthenes, the Athenian orator, in the 4th century BC against King Philip of Macedon — was the St. John’s team’s ticket to imminent victory. The rules called for the team to spell a second word correctly, so entropy won them the first prize of a team dinner, courtesy of Worthington Firehouse Station #100. Their graciously losing friends from Congregation Beth Tikvah earned six family passes to the Columbus Museum of Art for coming in second.
I silently spelled each word throughout the bee, playing the game vicariously to see how far I advanced. There were several words I’d never heard of before, but I slowly sounded them out to myself and spelled them correctly. The “h” in catachresis did me in.
The convoluted twists and turns of spelling words in the English language can put a damper on even the best speller. In 1906, Mark Twain joined Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal System for the classification of library books, and others on the Simplified Spelling Board to reform spelling so it would be simpler and easier to learn. Andrew Carnegie provided financial support, and Theodore Roosevelt was one of its biggest fans. It was no “surprize” when the board fizzled out by 1920, after Carnegie died and the cash stopped.
As Twain said in the remarks he was invited to give before a spelling bee held in the spring of 1875 at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut,
“Some people have an idea that correct spelling can be taught, and taught to anybody. That is a mistake. The spelling faculty is a gift; it is a talent. People who have this talent in high degree need only to see a word once in print and it is forever photographed upon their memory. They cannot forget it. People who haven’t it must be content to spell more or less like thunder, and expect to splinter the dictionary wherever their orthographic lightning happens to strike.”
For more on spelling bees, check out American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds: The Lives of Five Top Spellers as They Compete for Glory and Fame, by James Maguire; “Webster’s Children,” in Americana: Dispatches from the New Frontier, by Hampton Sides; Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, which also inspired a movie; and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a book by Rachel Sheinkin and a musical with music and lyrics by William Finn.
To read more about spelling and dictionaries, track down Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, by David Wolman; Noah Webster and the American Dictionary, by David Micklethwait; The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English, From Shakespeare to South Park, by Jack Lynch; and The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, both by Simon Winchester.