It was another dramatic finish at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. After the 46 semifinalists were whittled down to the dozen contestants for last night's finals, I tweeted, "12 kids enter, 1 kid leaves." Little did I know that two kids would be named co-champions in the Bee's first tie since 1962.
The day started with two rounds of televised semifinals. That meant that each of the 46 competitors got two chances to spell words on stage, and if they heard the ding of the bell, they were out. But, in rules introduced last year, that wasn't the only way that semifinalists could be winnowed out. The contestants were also earning points in computerized tests held for the preliminary and semifinal rounds, and those points counted toward the final calculation of who would advance to the finals. For those not versed in the Bee's new rules, the situation was a tad confusing.
It was an entertaining morning of spelling, including such words as fustigate, favus, and funambulist (a favorite of ours!). As usual, spellers had to know their Greek (parapraxis, diaphoresis, xerophthalmia, brachypterous) and their French (messuage, harlequinade, pelisse, Camembert). But when all was said and done, the field had only been winnowed to 36 by the ding of the bell. So that meant another 24 had to be eliminated based on the computer tests covering both spelling and vocabulary questions.
When the final 12 were announced, there were some surprising omissions — favorites who had slipped below the point cutoff. That included Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who finished in fifth place last year (and whose sister Kavya won in 2009), and Joseph Cusi Delamerced of Cincinnati, who tied for twelfth place in last year's finals. But those that made it were an entertaining bunch, including the ridiculously enthusiastic Jacob Williams of Cape Coral, Fla., who let out a delighted shriek whenever he spelled a word correctly.
One clear frontrunner in the finals was Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, N.Y., last year's third-place finisher and a five-time contestant in the nationals. And as the finals wore on, it seemed increasingly clear that Sriram was an unstoppable force. But there were other fearless spellers who were up to the task.
The final six consisted of four boys and two girls, but the two girls were the first to be eliminated: Mary Horton of West Melbourne, Fla., and Alia Abiad of Western Springs, Ill. Mary, who charmingly "air-typed" as she spelled, went out on the Greek toughie aetites, a term for the "eaglestone," defined as "a concretionary nodule of clay ironstone about the size of a walnut that the ancients believed an eagle takes to her nest to facilitate egg-laying." Mary spelled it with ao-, not recognizing the Greek root for "eagle." The word that Alia missed was just as obscure: irbis, a term for "snow leopard" that originated in a Russian word with roots in the Mongol and Kalmuck languages. (Alia gamely guessed erbiz.)
That left Sriram and three other scarily proficient boys: Ashwin Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio, Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, Mo., and Ansun Sujoe of Fort Worth, Tex. Ashwin, whose sister Anamika won in 2010, was the first to fall, missing the "y" in the French dépaysé ("situated in unfamiliar surroundings"). Then Gokul missed the first "e" in Kierkegaardian. That left Sriram and Ansun to battle it out, and battle they did.
At one point it seemed like it might be all over, because Sriram misspelled the German-French hybrid corpsbruder ("a close comrade") as korbruiter. But then Ansun was similarly stumped by antigropelos, spelling the odd word for waterproof leggings as antigropolos (stymied by the dreaded schwa). So the duel continued.
Eventually, they started to exhaust the list of 25 Championship words that had begun to be used when only three finalists remained. In the twenty-second round of the competition, Sriram correctly spelled stichomythia ("dialogue especially of altercation or dispute delivered in alternating lines") and Ansun answered with feuilleton ("a feature section of a European newspaper). Under the rules of the competition, Sriram and Ansun were declared co-champions, the first time since 1962 that such a result transpired.
The two young spellers triumphantly hoisted the Championship trophy, but were assured that they would each receive their own trophy and would not have to split any of the other prizes. Sriram summed it up graciously: "I think we both know that the competition was against the dictionary, not against each other. I am happy to share this trophy with him." Congratulations to both of them, and to all the other impressive contestants, for another year of excellent competition!
As in past years, I was busy live-tweeting the action on the @VocabularyCom Twitter account. If you want to relive the play-by-play, we've compiled all the tweets on Storify. And you can also check out a list of some of the challenging words from the semifinal and final rounds here. (Try testing yourself by taking the list as a spellng bee!)
Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer