Two hundred eighty-one young contestants took on the new-and-improved preliminaries of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which for the first time included questions about words' definitions along with their spellings. After the dust had cleared, 42 of them managed to make it to Thursday's semifinals.
The action started off-stage on Tuesday, as the qualifiers took a computer-based test that was evenly split between spelling questions and vocabulary questions: 12 of each type counted toward the competitors' final scores. As in past years, the words to be spelled in the first round ranged from the straightforward (twinge, chortle, romanticism) to the more challenging (aurochs, morel, epideictic). The multiple-choice vocabulary questions also ran the gamut. Here are the 12 vocab questions with their correct answers:
Which of these is an example of acrimony?
Answer: sharp verbal conflict
An anglophile is a person who:
Answer: admires England and English things
A person with bibliomania has:
Answer: a preoccupation with acquiring and possessing books
To be cognizant of something is to be:
Answer: aware of it
An epicure is a person who:
Answer: has excellent and discriminating taste in food
Something described as furtive is:
Answer: done in secret
Something described as gargantuan is:
Which of these would be described as lucrative?
Answer: a high-paying job
Something described as nebulous is:
Answer: hazy or lacking clarity
Something described as sublime is:
Answer: awe-inspiring and great
Something described as tranquil is:
Which of these is most similar to vivacity?
(Scripps didn't release the wrong answers to these multiple-choice questions, but you can see what sample questions and answers look like here.)
The 12 vocabulary words in the first round might not seem quite so devilish, but each contestant was also given two additional vocab questions, with words derived from the spelling lists used for the on-stage second and third rounds. These words were significantly harder than those in the first round, so they were worth three points each. That seems fair, given that the three-pointers included these stumpers:
In what subject would an akaryote be studied?
A jambeau is a type of:
Answer: medieval armor
Answer: movement of the lips without any sound
What is another word for cecity?
Wiesenboden is a type of:
What does hamartia refer to?
Answer: a tragic character defect
As Bee director Paige Kimble explained to me when the introduction of vocabulary questions was announced, the contestants don't have to memorize exact definitions, but instead need to know what the words mean in a general way — it's good enough to know that an akaryote is studied in biology, without having to remember precisely that it's a cell without a nucleus. If you would like to test your knowledge on these words from Round 2 and 3, check out the Vocabulary.com list here. Just like the Scripps contestants, you can try your luck on both the definitions and the spellings of the words.
After the on-stage spelling rounds of the preliminaries, the original 281 had been whittled down a bit, since anyone who spelled a word wrong heard the ding of the bell and was automatically eliminated. Then came the more serious vetting: of the remaining qualifiers, 42 were selected to advance to the semifinals based on their total scores in the computerized testing. Actually, the number was originally 41, but as the AP's Joseph White reported, Nikitha Chandran of Valrico, Fla. made the cut at the last minute after it was ruled that her spelling of viruscide was a legitimate variant of virucide, thus earning her an extra point and putting her over the scoring threshold.
Along with Nikitha are some old hands in this year's group of semifinalists, who clearly weren't bothered by the addition of vocabulary questions to the proceedings. Oddsmakers would likely favor two returning spellers: eighth-grader Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, NY, who finished in third place in 2011 and 2012, and sixth-grader Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kan., who tied for tenth last year and whose sister Kavya won the Bee in 2009. And don't count out Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla. (9th in 2010, 14th in 2011, 22nd in 2012) or Rachael Cundey of Evans, Ga. (tied with Vanya in tenth place last year). Of course, a first-timer could just as easily win.
Now it's on to the semifinals, televised on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. EDT, and the finals on ESPN at 8 p.m. EDT. If you're unable to tune in, never fear — I'll be live-tweeting the competition on the @VocabularyCom Twitter feed. And after the finals, watch this space for a full recap of the action on Word Routes.
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
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