Saturday, June 2, 2012

Ambush of Foreign Words at National Spelling Bee

Fourteen-year-old Snigdha Nandipat eluded the guetapens laid by the canities at the Scripps National Spelling Bee as one challenger lost himself in the high vetiver, another came in one Heath bar short of an ericeticolous ending, and the final challenger fell to insufficient schwarmerei for the geistlich unabridged dictionaries that grow like schwannoma on this annual porwigle ridotto.

Round Contestant Correct/Incorrect spelling Meaning Language
13 Snigdha Nandipati
San Diego, California
ambush, snare, trap French
12 Stuti Mishra
West Melbourne, Florida
unwholesome obsession German
10 Arvind Mahankali
Bayside Hills, New York
a specific cancer tumor German
9 Gifton Wright
Spanish Town, Jamaica
living in a heath habitat Latin
9 Nicholas Rushlow
Pickerington, Ohio
an Indian grass or its root French from Tamil
9 Lena Greenberg
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
religious, spiritual, sacred German
8 Frank Cahill
Parker, Colorado
tadpole, pollywog Middle English
7 Jordan Hoffman
Lee's Summit, Missouri
graying or whitening of hair Latin
7 Emma Ciereszynski
Dover, New Hampshire
retreat, place of entertainment Italian

To force the kids to compete on putatively English words gleaned from foreign and medical dictionaries seems pointless. It seems to me you want your National Spelling Bee champion to win on a good old American word, like incisor (1975) or narcolepsy (1976). In recent years, the contest has been buried alive in an endless stream of obscure words, a vivisepulture (1996) of logorrhea (1999).

I'd be hard pressed to tell you what any of these winning words from 2001-2011 mean without looking them up: succedaneum, prospicience, pococurante, autochthonous, appoggiatura, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, Laodicean, stromuhr, and cymotrichous.

If the idea is to introduce American kids to a better appreciation of foreign culture, I'd suggest that next year they simply have the contestants spell each other's names.

It's fun to watch the kids take on the supposed spelling masters, the adults rolling words they've likely never seen before in practiced sentences designed to make the master seem clever. And when the kids ask for the language of derivation, you can tell they don't always buy the pretense that the word has become English.


MuddyValley said...

Who chooses the words for the contest? Do the kids have a master list to study beforehand, or are they just given dictionaries in five or six languages?
I like your suggestion!

Left Bank of the Charles said...

They use materials from Merriam-Webster. These days a large part of the spelling bee game is learning how to spell words you've never heard before based upon knowing the spelling quirks of various original languages. That certainly knowledge, but not building vocabulary.