Ultimate spelling bee

A Bob Eckstein cartoon circulated today, on the occasion of an unprecedented event in the world of English spelling competitions:

(#1) FB note from Bob: “Can you use it in a sentence?”

Story in the New York Times today,  “National Spelling Bee, at a Loss for Words, Crowns 8 Co-Champions” (octo-champs, as one of them said) by Daniel Victor.

Note that Bob has chosen to represent two of the four contestants in his cartoon as adolescents of color. In fact, 7 of the 8 winners are of Indian descent. (This is, of course, a cultural, not genetic, phenomenon — but certainly worth some reflection.)

On the format for spelling bees, see the discussion following cartoon #5 in my 3/19/19 posting “Le retour des hiéroglyphes”.

Spelling bees are a form of competitive language play — a competition in which the contestants compete in reaching some criterion of performance (as in competitive diving), rather than a racing competition (as in swimming races) or a competition framed as combat (as in chess or most team sports). As this year’s competitors themselves said, they were competing against the dictionary, not each other.

Note on ages: the eligibility requirements are moderately complex, but there’s no minimum age, and no one 15 or older is eligible; most competitors are 13. In this year’s winning cohort, one is 12, six are 13, and one is 14. Oh yes, 2 girls, 5 boys.

Of the eight words in the last round, one — bougainvillea — I use with modest frequency, and two — auslaut and erysipelas — I recall having encountered, and know what they mean. One more — aiguillette — I believe I’ve seen in print, but I’m hazy on the meaning. The remaining four — pendeloque, palama, cernuous, odylic — I’m completely unfamiliar with. Of course, at the top levels, spelling bees rely on extremely rare words (I know bougainvillea only because I’m a gardener in coastal California; I’ve grown the plant on my patio, and there are several of the vines now blooming showily within a block of my house.)

And there’s a challenge only because English spelling has so many alternative spellings for particular sounds, especially because it has borrowed spellings from other languages. Given the pronunciation /ˈpaləmə/ for the webbing on the feet of aquatic birds’, there are a fair number of possible spellings, most prominently the 24 spellings PALxMA, PALxMMA, POLLxMA, POLLxMMA, where x is one of the vowel spellings A, E, I, O, U, Y. PALAMA is probably the best guess — but this is a spelling bee, where exotic spellings abound, so the most likely spelling is probably not the right one. Oh, it is.

#1 isn’t Bob’s first foray into spelling-bee cartooning. From my 6/24/16 posting “Bob Eckstein”, space aliens at a spelling bee (#4 there):


3 Responses to “Ultimate spelling bee”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Now 80 years old, I’ve won the Blount County (in east Tennessee, south of Knoxville, pronounced ‘blunt’) Adult Spelling bee for the last three years. Looking at the final round of words for the National Spelling Bee, I find I knew (and didn’t know) the same words Arnold did.

    There doesn’t seem to be much interest in a national adult spelling bee.

    I found some fascinating Web pages for Hmong spelling bees, for Hmong-American elementary school kids. Hmong has eight tones, each of them represented by a consonant stuck on the end of a word (since Hmong words don’t end in consonants). Thus Hmong is spelt ‘Hmoob’ in Hmong – the initial cluster is in fact pronounced, the doubled vowel means it’s nasalized, and the ‘b’ is the tone marker.

    Kids are required to be proficient in both Hmong Leng and Hmong Daw.

    Other than that, spelling bees are confined to English, because of our awful orthography.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    You might have encountered “aiguillette” if you read The Three Musketeers in your youth (or more recently). It is apparently a piece of jewelry; there’s a plot sequence in which d’Artagnan goes to England to recover a set of them that the Queen of France has given to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham.

    The word appeared in italics in the translation I read, thus presented as an untranslated French word. Also, my recollection has it with a double /l, and I see that my spellchecker agrees.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The single L in “aiguillette” was entirely a consequence of the barely functional fingers on my right hand. I spend a lot of type reading and re-reading my copy for missed letters, but inevitably I fail to catch some. I’ve corrected this one.

      But yes, probably The Three Musketeers, read in my youth.

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