At The Spelling Bee, Spelling Is No Longer Enough

This week, the National Spelling Bee announced that spelling will no longer be enough.

Beginning this year, contestants in the early rounds will not only have to know how to spell, say, "flocculent," but also know whether it's:

A) an intestinal disorder among sheep

B) the stuffing inside a sofa pillow

C) a clump of wool

It's C, by the way.

Paige Kimble, executive director of the Spelling Bee, says the change was made to reinforce that the purpose of the whole national contest isn't just to produce a newsclip of brainy and endearing youngsters in bottle-thick glasses spelling "borborygmus" — which is a rumbling in the intestines, by the way — but to encourage students to strengthen their powers of communication.

And she says good student spellers are apparently not like Major League Baseball pitchers, who might throw a ball 100 miles an hour, but can't hit one with a surfboard.

"What we know with the championship-level spellers," says Ms. Kimble, "is that they think of ... spelling and vocabulary being two sides of the same coin."

Linda Holmes wrote on NPR's Monkey See blog this week that "the Bee at its best is not rote memorization of the largest number of words, divorced from their context and floating outside of sentences."

But it's interesting to review the words that have been correctly spelled to win the Spelling Bee since it began. "Luxuriance" was the word in 1927, "promiscuous" in 1937, "psychiatry" in 1948, "eczema" in 1965, "croissant" in 1970, and "psoriasis" in 1982.

All those words may have been a little tricky to spell, with X's, Z's, silent P's or inexplicable double S's. But they were familiar. The fact that they were spoken in everyday conversation made it humbling and instructive when we were uncertain how to spell them.

But as the National Spelling Bee has grown more popular and publicized, the words youngsters spell to win the championship have grown increasingly unfamiliar — corkers to stump a contestant, not to leave anyone with a new word they can't wait to use.

In 2011 the word that won the contest was "cymotrichous," which is to possess wavy hair, though I doubt Taylor Swift or Matthew McConaughey describe themselves that way. Last year, it was "guetapens," which is a kind of trap. Especially if you try to pronounce it.

Maybe putting the meaning back into words will remind us that most of the students we see in spelling bees aren't spelling out words that will win a contest, but knowing them may help make them wiser through that real contest called life.

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