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Secrets of the National Spelling Bee: Picking the words to identify a champion

Crew members assemble the main stage ahead of the 2023 Scripps Nations Spelling Bee on Sunday, May 28, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md.
Nathan Howard
/
AP
Crew members assemble the main stage ahead of the 2023 Scripps Nations Spelling Bee on Sunday, May 28, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md.

OXON HILL, Md. — As the final pre-competition meeting of the Scripps National Spelling Bee's word selection panel stretches into its seventh hour, the pronouncers no longer seem to care.

Before panelists can debate the words picked for the bee, they need to hear each word and its language of origin, part of speech, definition and exemplary sentence read aloud. Late in the meeting, lead pronouncer Jacques Bailly and his colleagues — so measured in their pacing and meticulous in their enunciation during the bee — rip through that chore as quickly as possible. No pauses. No apologies for flubs.

By the time of this gathering, two days before the bee, the word list is all but complete. Each word has been vetted by the panel and slotted into the appropriate round of the nearly century-old annual competition to identify the English language's best speller.

For decades, the word panel's work has been a closely guarded secret. This year, Scripps — a Cincinnati-based media company — granted The Associated Press exclusive access to the panelists and their pre-bee meeting, with the stipulation that The AP would not reveal words unless they were cut from the list.

They're tough on words

The 21 panelists sit around a makeshift, rectangular conference table in a windowless room tucked inside the convention center outside Washington where the bee is staged every year. They are given printouts including words Nos. 770-1,110 — those used in the semifinal rounds and beyond — with instructions that those sheets of paper cannot leave the room.

Hearing the words aloud with the entire panel present — laptops open to Merriam-Webster's Unabridged dictionary — sometimes illuminates problems. That's what happened late in Sunday's meeting. Kavya Shivashankar, the 2009 champion, an obstetrician/gynecologist and a recent addition to the panel, chimed in with an objection.

The word gleyde (pronounced "glide"), which means a decrepit old horse and is only used in Britain, has a near-homonym — glyde — with a similar but not identical pronunciation and the same meaning. Shivashankar says the variant spelling makes the word too confusing, and the rest of the panel quickly agrees to spike gleyde altogether. It won't be used.

"Nice word, but bye-bye," pronouncer Kevin Moch says.

For the panelists, the meeting is the culmination of a yearlong process to assemble a word list that will challenge but not embarrass the 230 middle- and elementary-school-aged competitors — and preferably produce a champion within the two-hour broadcast window for Thursday night's finals.

The panel's work has changed over the decades. From 1961 to 1984, according to James Maguire's book "American Bee," creating the list was a one-man operation overseen by Jim Wagner, a Scripps Howard editorial promotions director, and then by Harvey Elentuck, a then-MIT student who approached Wagner about helping with the list in the mid-1970s.

The panel was created in 1985. The current collaborative approach didn't take shape until the early '90s. Bailly, the 1980 champion, joined in 1991.

"Harvey ... made the whole list," Bailly says. "I never met him. I was just told, 'You're the new Harvey.'"

It's not just picking words

This year's meeting includes five full-time bee staffers and 16 contract panelists. The positions are filled via word of mouth within the spelling community or recommendations from panelists. The group includes five former champions: Barrie Trinkle (1973), Bailly, George Thampy (2000), Sameer Mishra (2008) and Shivashankar.

Trinkle, who joined the panel in 1997, used to produce the majority of her submissions by reading periodicals like The New Yorker or The Economist.

"Our raison d'etre was to teach spellers a rich vocabulary that they could use in their daily lives. And as they got smarter and smarter, they got more in contact with each other and were studying off the same lists, it became harder to hold a bee with those same types of words," Trinkle says.

Now, more often than not she goes directly to the source — Merriam-Webster's Unabridged. That's easier than it used to be.

"The dictionary is on the computer and is highly searchable in all kinds of ways — which the spellers know as well. If they want to find all the words that entered the language in the 1650s, they can do that, which is sometimes what I do," Trinkle says. "The best words kind of happen to you as you're scrolling around through the dictionary."

Not everyone on the panel submits words. Some work to ensure that the definitions, parts of speech and other accompanying information are correct; others are tasked with ensuring that words of similar difficulty are asked at the right times in the competition; others focus on crafting the bee's new multiple-choice vocabulary questions. Those who submit words, like Trinkle and Mishra, are given assignments throughout the year to come up with a certain number at a certain level of difficulty.

Mishra pulls his submissions from his own list, which he started when he was a 13-year-old speller. He gravitates toward "the harder end of the spectrum."

"They are fun and challenging for me and they make me smile, and I know if I was a speller I would be intimidated by that word," says the 28-year-old Mishra, who just finished his MBA at Harvard. "I have no fear about running out (of words), and I feel good about that."

How the bee has evolved

The panel meets a few times a year, often virtually, to go over words, edit definitions and sentences, and weed out problems. The process seemed to go smoothly through the 2010s, even amid a proliferation of so-called "minor league" bees, many catering to offspring of highly educated, first-generation Indian immigrants — a group that has come to dominate the competition.

In 2019, a confluence of factors — among them, a wild-card program that allowed multiple spellers from competitive regions to reach nationals — produced an unusually deep field of spellers. Scripps had to use the toughest words on its list just to cull to a dozen finalists. The bee ended in an eight-way tie, and there was no shortage of critics.

Scripps, however, didn't fundamentally change the way the word panel operates. It brought in younger panelists more attuned to the ways contemporary spellers study and prepare. And it made format changes designed to identify a sole champion. The wild-card program was scrapped, and Scripps added onstage vocabulary questions and a lightning-round tiebreaker.

The panel also began pulling words avoided in the past. Place names, trademarks, words with no language of origin: As long as a word isn't archaic or obsolete, it's fair game.

"They've started to understand they have to push further into the dictionary," says Shourav Dasari, a 20-year-old former speller and a co-founder with his older sister Shobha of SpellPundit, which sells study guides and hosts a popular online bee. "Last year, we started seeing stuff like tribal names that are some of the hardest words in the dictionary."

There's a meticulousness to it all

Members of the panel insist they worry little about other bees or the proliferation of study materials and private coaches. But those coaches and entrepreneurs spend a lot of time thinking about the words Scripps is likely to use — often quite successfully.

Dasari says there are roughly 100,000 words in the dictionary that are appropriate for spelling bees. He pledges that 99% of the words on Scripps' list are included in SpellPundit's materials. Anyone who learns all those words is all but guaranteed to win, Dasari says — but no one has shown they can do it.

"I just don't know when anybody would be able to completely master the unabridged dictionary," Dasari says.

Since the bee resumed after its 2020 pandemic cancellation, the panel has been scrutinized largely for the vocabulary questions, which have added a capricious element, knocking out some of the most gifted spellers even if they don't misspell a word. Last year's champion, Harini Logan, was briefly ousted on a vocabulary word, "pullulation" — only to be reinstated minutes later after arguing that her answer could be construed as correct.

"That gave us a sense of how very, very careful we need to be in terms of crafting these questions," says Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a chief contributor of words for the vocabulary rounds.

Zimmer is also sensitive to the criticism that some vocabulary questions are evaluating the spellers' cultural sophistication rather than their mastery of roots and language patterns. This year's vocabulary questions contain more clues that will guide gifted spellers to the answers, he says.

There will always be complaints about the word list, but making the competition as fair as possible is the panel's chief goal. Missing hyphens or incorrect capitalization, ambiguities about singular and plural nouns or transitive and intransitive verbs — no question is too insignificant.

"This is really problematic," Trinkle says, pointing out a word that has a homonym with a similar definition.

Scripps editorial manager Maggie Lorenz agrees: "We're going to bump that word entirely."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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