In the Internet age, when evryone is forgeting how to spel corectly, the spelling bee is strangely more popular than ever.
The Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee is the nation’s largest and longest running education contest. It is organized by newspapers that run preliminary contests in thousands of markets. Its name is a misnomer in that any English-language newspaper can participate, and contestants come from all over the world. Yesterday in Washington, in the last qualifying rounds, 280 juvenescent brainiacs wrestled with a cornucopia of contronyms, homographs and tetrabrachs to demonstrate their superlative orthographic proficiency. The finals will air live today on ESPN and tonight on ABC, with huge ratings expected.
As participation and interest in the event has exploded, so too has the difficulty. Not long ago, the winning words were commonly known and useful, such as “incisor” (1975), “milieu” (1985), and “kamikaze” (1993). But over the last decade, the words have become increasingly technical, arcane and complex, to the point where the finals seem less like a spelling exercise and more like a novelty act. Honestly, how often do you get a chance to use these little nuggets in your daily conversation?:
“serrefine” (2007): a small spring forceps used for approximating the edges of a wound
“ursprache” (2006): a reconstructed, hypothetical parent language
“appoggiatura” (2005): a musical note of embellishment preceding another note and taking a portion of its time
“autochthonous” (2004): aboriginal, indigenous
“pococurante” (2003): caring little; indifferent; nonchalant
With words as ridiculous as these, wouldn’t it be ironic if the winning word this year is “Floccinaucinihilipilification”? Indubitably.