Contestants are allotted two minutes to spell their word and may ask for the meaning, the etymology and alternate pronunciations. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, held Wednesday, they needed to spell just one word. The finals will be broadcast live at 8 pm Thursday on the ION network and on the competition’s website.
The competition is being held fully in-person for the first time since 2019, after disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The bee was not held in 2020, and the only in-person contestants last year were the 11 finalists.
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This time, families, coaches and others sat in the National Harbor audience while around the country, friends, relatives, teachers and classmates watched the live broadcast. Two hundred twenty-nine contestants took the stage in Tuesday’s preliminaries to spell a word from a 4,000-word list, answer a multiple-choice vocabulary question about a word on that list and then spell a word that could appear anywhere in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.
Some contestants answered quickly. Some drew it out, asking question after question until the screen behind them turned red, warning that only a few seconds remained. Their fingers fluttered to scribble invisible words such as “ikebana,” “meunière,” “wiliwili” and “obvertend” into their palms.
A misspelling prompted the ding of a bell: instant elimination. A correct spelling meant living to spell again.
“Does this word contains the Greek prefix mono, meaning ‘one’?” asked Florida’s Juan Rondeau, 13, about “mononucleosis.” (It did.)
“Does it come from the Latin ‘ic’, meaning ‘related to’?” asked Indiana’s Ishan Ramrakhiani, 14, about “ineradicable.” (Yes.)
“Can I have the spelling?” quipped California’s Vikrant Chintanaboina, 13, of “suffrutescent.” (Haha, no.)
In the vast hotel atrium, Charlotte tried to relax with her father and younger brothers. A poised taekwondo brown belt who is home-schooled, she had been a competitive speller since age 6, and at 10 she had come to the bee and tied for 51st place. This time, Charlotte was number 202, so she wouldn’t be up until the evening. It was just after lunch now, and she was spending her free time studying words. She also carried a secret weapon: a lucky stuffed octopus with rainbow-colored tentacles named Gregory.
“I don’t think they’ll let me take him onstage,” she said. Like other family members, Gregory would watch from the audience.
Harsha Dinesh, 13, of Ashburn, Va., had taken off from school to spend a week at the hotel with his father, Dinesh Chandrasekhar, 47. A giant Ferris wheel beckoned outside by the Potomac River, but on Tuesday afternoon the two were holed up in their hotel room, Chandrasekhar lobbing words and Harsha swinging.
“Ready?” his father said. “Pallid.”
“Reflexology.” “Trembling.” “Malfeasance.” “Dopamine.” Flabbergast.” Sometimes Harsha immediately knew the word. Sometimes he paused.
“For bigger words, take a step back,” his father said. “Wait. Read it in your mind. Do not rush.” He reminded Harsha of Braydon Syx, an Alabama contestant from that morning who had slowly, excruciatingly, repeated question after question as the seconds ticked away. “He did not rush,” Chandrasekhar said. “And he got it right.”
Chandrasekhar admitted he was no Jacques Bailly, the University of Vermont classics professor who has been the competition’s official pronouncer since 2003 and enunciates each word with a vaguely Midwestern intonation.
“My accent is not that great. I have a thick Indian accent,” Chandrasekhar said. “I’m not schooled here, so no matter how hard I try, even after 23 years, it’s going to be hard for me to pronounce it the same way as people here do.”
Harsha’s favorite words are those rooted in English. The worst is French, he said. “French freaks me out.”
Charlotte, who was staying in the hotel with her parents and three younger brothers, had met spellers from far-flung places, some of whom she had befriended earlier online. By Tuesday afternoon, some of her friends had been eliminated.
“I’m really sad about it, because they worked really hard,” she said. “You could know every other word in the dictionary, and if they give you the word you don’t know, that’s it and it’s done.”
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What kinds of words does she find hardest?
“I don’t want to jinx anything,” Charlotte said, “so I don’t want to say a specific one, because maybe I’ll go out on that one.”
On Wednesday morning, spellers and their families posed for photos in front of a spelling bee mural in a lobby area and played with Legos set up beside a large screen simulcasting the competition. On a piece of poster paper, contestants wrote notes of encouragement to each other: “You are all champions!” “Give it your all! And be calm!”
Eighty-eight spellers remained for the quarterfinals, but Harsha was not one of them: He had met his Waterloo the night before with the French “de rigour,” leaving out the first “u.” Charlotte had advanced, correctly spelling “kathakali” and “beefeater” and defining “gubernatorial.”
At a table near the Legos, three contestants in brightly patterned skirts were drawing pictures with colored pencils. Petra Sarpong, 12, N’Adom Darko-Asare, 11, and Annie-Lois Acheampong, 13, had flown in last weekend from Ghana, which has been sending spellers to the competition for 15 years, sponsored by the Young Educators Foundation, a nonprofit in Accra.
In past years, Ghana had sent only one participant. This time three had qualified, after spending nine months meeting virtually and in person to work on spelling. “Weekends, holidays, mornings, evenings,” said Eugenia Tachie-Menson, YEF’s country director, adding that the work had benefits beyond the bee. “It helps your speaking, your literacy, your writing.”
All three are native English speakers but also know official spelling bee words with African roots, such as “kente,” a woven cloth, or “kwashiorkor,” a protein deficiency.
N’Adom and Annie-Lois had been eliminated on Tuesday, and Petra on Wednesday morning. Now the group would have six days to relax and visit the Washington Monument, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the White House.
They already had made a pilgrimage to Starbucks.
“The whole point of their trip,” Tachie-Menson deadpanned.
“It just has some kind of appeal, I don’t know why,” said Annie-Lois, who attends a boarding school that presumably does not do mango dragonfruit refreshers.
A wave of applause rose from the TV monitor, and the girls perked up: Charlotte had correctly spelled “palapala,” a Hawaiian word for writing, becoming one of 48 contestants to advance to the semifinals. “We made friends with Charlotte!” N’Adom said.
During a break, Bailly stopped by their table, and the girls jumped up to shake the pronouncer’s hand and take photos with him. They chatted with him about “one legge,” alternatively spelled “one legge,” which Tachie-Menson described as an African dance whose name is derived from pidgin English.
“It’s trending on TikTok,” she said.