2012 Spelling Bee: San Diego's Snigdha Nandipati Wins a "Miracle"
In the 85th Scripps National Spelling Bee, the words were as diabolical as ever, but Snigdha Nandipati of San Diego, California took it all in stride. When it came time to spell the final word, guetapens, a French-derived word for "an ambush, snare, or trap," she wasn't snared by its strangeness and calmly spelled it correctly.
After the confetti fell, she excitedly said the victory was a "miracle." But perhaps it wasn't so miraculous after all: she acknowledged she had seen the winning word, and all the others she had to spell, in her training for the Bee. All that hard work paid off marvelously.
When the semifinals started on Thursday morning, the 50 semifinalists included some familiar faces to Bee watchers. There was Arvind Mahankali of Bayside, N.Y., who tied for third last year. And there was Nicholas Rushlow of Pickerington, Ohio, competing in his fifth and final year, who we got to know after we discovered he was using the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee in his training. The ESPN announcers dubbed Arvind the early frontrunner, but they said that Nicholas was the sentimental favorite, as he had achieved a kind of celebrity status among his fellow spellers. And there was Vanya Shivashankar of Olanthe, Kansas, whose sister Kavya won the 2009 Bee and who had aced the preliminaries. All were very strong contestants.
Spellers began to fall as the difficulty of the words increased. Rahul Malayappan of Danbury, Conn., like Nicholas a five-time competitor, went out in Round 5. And given all those fives, it was ironic that the word he missed was quinquennalia, meaning "public games celebrated in ancient Rome every five years." Rahul spelled it as quinquenalia, and it turned out that tricky doubled consonants would bring down several other spellers over the course of the day. For instance, Simola Nayak of Tucker, Ga. spelled rapparee "an Irish irregular soldier of the 17th century" with one p, and Vismaya Kharkar of Bountiful, Utah spelled pissaladière "an open-faced pastry topped with olives, onions, and anchovies" with one s (and two r's).
Vanya Shivashankar, meanwhile, was stymied by pejerrey, a Spanish-derived name of a fish from the South American coasts, spelling it as pejare. Often with these foreign words, it is extremely tricky to discern the orthographic rules that they follow. (All words in the Bee, no matter how foreign-sounding, appear in an unabridged English dictionary -- namely, Webster's Third New International.) Vanya is only a fifth grader, however, so she has three more chances to follow in her sister Kavya's footsteps.
Both Arvind and Nicholas sailed through to the prime-time finals, making the cut for the final nine. Others included Gifton Wright of Spanish Town, Jamaica, who showed the courteous sportsmanship that Jamaican spellers perennially display. But the words got even tougher, and finalists began falling by the wayside. Gifton was eventually stumped by ericeticolous meaning "inhabiting a heath." He started it with ero-, once again proving that the unstressed schwa sound can be a speller's downfall, as it can be spelled with just about any vowel. Similarly, Jordan Hoffman of Lee's Summit, Missouri misspelled canities, meaning "grayness or whiteness of the hair,' by replacing the a with an o, and Emma Ciereszynski of Dover, N.H. spelled the Italian ridotto "an arrangement or abridgment of musical composition" as redatto.
Nicholas was done in by what he called "the dreaded schwa" as well, spelling the Tamil-to-French-to-English word vetiver, a kind of aromatic grass, as vetover. Lena Greenberg of Philadelphia was tripped up by geistlich, a German musical term meaning "with deep feeling" by ending it with -leich. Nicholas, Lena, and Gifton ended up tied for fourth place, and three spellers remained: Arvind and Snigdha, along with Stuti Mishra of West Melbourne, Florida. Arvind and Stuti didn't have trouble with words with schwa, but they did fall victim to German-derived words beginning with schwa-, oddly enough. Arvind misspelled schwannoma "a tumor of the sheath of peripheral nerve" as schvanoma, and Stuti misspelled schwarmerei, a word for "excessive unbridled enthusiam or attachment," as schwermerei.
After Stuti's misstep, it was up to Snigdha to win it all with her final word, guetapens. If she hadn't, there was a good possibility that she and Stuti could have ended up in a tie after the 25 championship words that the two of them had to spell were exhausted. But it was not to be: Snigdha, whose name we learned means "flowing like honey" or "mellifluous," was crowned the winner. As the champion, she receives a $30,000 cash prize from Scripps, an engraved trophy, and more than $10,000 in other prizes and scholarships. A hearty congratulations to her and all the contestants! I had a great time tracking the Bee by posting updates to the Visual Thesaurus Twitter feed — thank you to all who followed. You can check out the Storify version of the Twitter play-by-play here.
If you'd like to see a list of some of the tough words from this year's semifinal and final rounds, we've put one together here. Or try the Visual Thesaurus Spelling Bee to see how well you stack up against the best spellers!
Ben Zimmer 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