The 2014 Spelling Bee Retro-Blog

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Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how you feel about the spelling bee, or the fact that an adult man is live blogging a competition featuring middle schoolers, but what I can tell you is that I’ve been obsessed with spelling for a long, long time. I competed in bees as a kid, and even managed to win a couple, though the lingering memory for me is misspelling “nectar” as “nector” in fourth grade. In sixth and eighth grade, I had a chance to compete at the regional level of the Scripps Howard bee in New York state, and only the fact that I had basketball games both years—and the firm knowledge that I would have been quickly and mercilessly destroyed by the heavyweights of the spelling world, with no chance in hell of ever making the televised finals in Washington—kept me from competing. Since those glory days, I’ve watched the bee attentively, and I’m proud to say that I still pick favorites and go pretty crazy here in my living room as the drama plays out. I even got an actual media outlet to pay me to cover last year’s bee in person.

Bottom line: The spelling bee is the best, and anybody who disagrees probably hates life. So let’s start up this retro-blog, written as I watched the bee last night, beginning with ESPN’s coverage at 8 p.m.

8:00: We are LIVE in our nation’s capital, where 12 spellers remain. Before we begin, I have to pour one out for Vanya Shivashankar, my favorite speller this year, full of charisma and pluck and get-up-and-go, who unfortunately got booted by the computer test and won’t be competing tonight. I could not be sadder. She’s even featured in this weird bee-themed intro, saying “yeah, yeah, I know…my sister’s a past champion” (true fact). Luckily, she still has one more year, and I STILL BELIEVE IN YOU, VANYA!

8:03: We’re meeting the 12 competitors now, and they include a Jamaican competitor, an equal mix of males and females, and, we should mention now, a kid named Jacob Williamson, who is “eccentric” even by spelling standards. He loves to shriek and fall down on all fours cheering when he gets a word right, and his performance when he found out he made tonight’s finals was truly an epic display of emotion. I love him, but I’m worried for him.

8:04: Dr. Jacques Bailly kicks it off with Neha Konakalla, who is wearing a different outfit from this afternoon, and is quietly a huge unexpected threat. She’s smiling, which in the world of spelling is a dead giveaway—these kids can’t hide their emotions, and she’s got this. Neha nails chrysochlorous, which means “of the color golden green.” It’s always dangerous to go first, because you risk the huge anticlimax of getting booted before you’ve even settled in, but Neha is golden…green?

8:06: Oh boy, here’s Jacob Williamson. God love him. He’s wearing plaid and it looks like his hair hasn’t been washed in approximately six years. He gets the word rhadamanthine, and immediately hisses “yessss!” He nails it, and quickly, which makes me like him. I love fast spellers. Stop asking questions if you don’t need to, you damn punk kids!

8:08: Hey, it’s Chris McKendry and Paul Loeffler, our announcers for the evening. We learn that only one finalist is repeating tonight. Paul likes Tajaun Gibbison, the Jamaican lad, for the title, but we’ve got a speller in Ashwin Veeramani whose sister won a few years back, and Paul calls Sriram Hathwar (that lone returning finalist), a five-time bee entrant, the “California Chrome” of the bee. As Sriram is interviewed backstage, it’s worth noting that spellers of South Asian origin (mostly of Indian descent) have won seven straight bees, and 12 of the past 16. It’s an insane record of dominance, and Sriram is the speller most likely to keep it going. Humbly, he says that he doesn’t want any of the spellers to think he’s above them. He would be a good champ. A real class act.

8:09: Here’s Mary Hornton, a real charmer wearing her hair in a braid, and she’s totally comfortable with tapotement, which means “percussion in massage.” She has a thing where she types her words out on an imaginary keyboard, and so far it’s worked.

8:11: Alia Abid has absolutely no trouble with quebrada, and I have to wonder, have the kids become too good??? Are they on PEDs? Is there an Adderall problem in competitive spelling? Has the sport lost its integrity?

8:15: Tajuan from Jamaica gets “charcuterie,” and I immediately think it would help him a lot if he was an adult foodie hipster, because this is a word I know. He asks if it’s a “butcher shop,” and Dr. Bailly corrects him until he realizes that Tajuan’s definition is also valid. HE JUST PUNKED BAILLY! Tajuan is crazy polite, saying “thank you, sir” after every question. He also has a coach on the scene. This kid is tough!

8:17: Gokul Venkatachalam seems like a nice kid, but he’s a Miami Heat and LeBron James fan, so I’m immediately rooting against him. But wow, he takes down onyschoschizia like an old pro, nailing all the roots with staccato efficiency. Scary good. Nobody’s missing! They’re going to have to start making up fake words, but these kids will probably know those too.

8:19: Sriram’s up! First word for him, detraque, and it’s no problem at all. His main competitor, Ashwin, the brother of the former champ, gets holophote, and our hot streak is now at eight.

8:24: Oh, great, here’s the segment where we ask normal people on the street to spell simple words. Newsflash: Everybody is stupid. Our whole country is stupid. Please bring us back inside the ballroom for this brief respite from our national disgrace. Civilians are terrifying!

8:25: Now we have Kate Miller from Abilene, who is the only competitor from the final 12 who looks like she might legitimately be a popular kid at her school. Clearly she needs to be eliminated, but osteochondrous isn’t the word that’s going to do it. And just like Mary Horton, she does the typing thing.

8:28: The word oxygnathous means “having smooth or nearly smooth jaws,” and raises the question: Why do we need this word? Who invented this word, deciding we needed a way to celebrate a smooth jaw? Is there a word for bumpy elbows? Coarse quadriceps? It poses no issue for Ansun Sujoe, though, who values a smooth jaw and a crisply spelled word.

8:31: Oh man, our first out. It’s Samuel Pereles (an actor, according to a taped segment), who spells ecribellate with an incorrect “o.” “Unless you’ve studied specific parts of a spider, you’re not going to get that one,” says Paul. Spelling life is unfair.

8:33: Tejas Muthusamy is described as “the surprise of the finals,” which means nobody expected him to be here at age 11 (usually, 13-14-year-olds in 8th grade win). He’s got a Lord Varys vibe going on, and though he looks uncertain when faced with gematria, he gets the middle vowel. The round is over with just one speller eliminated. On to the hard words!

8:37: Neha again, and we’re going to get rapid fire here. OHHHH, and she looks so certain, but taglioni is one of those annoying Italian words that could end with “i” or “e,” and she incorrectly guesses “e.” Rough, rough, rough. A great competitor, but this stage is haunted by the ghosts of great competitors. (Too dramatic?) Ten spellers left!

8:40: They just showed Jacob winning his regional spelling bee, and as you might guess, he screeches in joy on the grainy tape. He also says he’s a member of the Fort Myers Coin club, and jokes that he’s probably the only one under 65. I’m liking him more by the instant, but if he manages to win this thing, he will probably become the most prominent meme of all time. The vines alone…he gets “Munchausenism,” which sounds so hilariously difficult off Bailly’s tongue, but Jacob has no trouble. And the celebration? GLORIOUS.

8:42: Mary Horton with “guillemet!” Alia, all smiles, with “collyrium.” ESPN then does an NBA finals promo, and while it looks fine on tv, I can tell you from experience it’s so odd when you’re live at the event, because nobody has any idea what’s happening, and just waits awkwardly. As if a spelling bee needed to be more awkward.

8:47: Tajuan is so no-nonsense. His voice has a military cadence, and despite the stream of “thank you”s, you get the sense he’s totally clinical. But ohhhh no, he misses chartula, leaving off the “h.” Brutal. He gets a well-deserved standing O. And here we see the dirty secret of the bee—nobody can memorize every word, and oftentimes whether you survive or go down, it’s a matter of luck. Tajuan will return.

8:50: Gokul the Heat fan gets “guttatim,” which means drop by drop. Sriram the heavy favorite has no issue with “encastage.” Ashwin, trying to make the Veeramani family the first to boast two champions, knows “tastevin” before it’s even off Bailly’s lips. And the Indian-American contingent continues to roll along. (For further reading, here’s an NPR story investigating why this small subculture has such success in the bee…the theory is that the cultural importance of memorization in learning plays a role.)

8:55: Ahhh Kate Miller’s gone, leaving out the “h” in “exochorion.” “That was my first instinct,” she says when she hears the proper spelling. But it’s off to the comfort couch, where she seems to be handling all this well. Ansun nails “dactylion,” and Kate is forced to reckon in a live interview with the fact that her eligibility is up. She’s asked what she’ll take with her, and she says “a suitcase full of happy memories” and “a true feeling of acceptance.” She is awesome.

9:01: Tejas is back, cracking up the room. It feels like it’s his time to bow out, to return stronger and fiercer next year. He gets the German word “hallenkirche,” which is just insane. Instead of typing, he writes the word out on his hand and…gets the whole damn word right until the final “ch,” with which he subs the “k.” UNFAIR. He roars offstage like General Macarthur leaving the Philippines. We will see you again, Tejas!

9:07: Tejas gets his consolation interview, and we have seven spellers left. A new round has begun, which means IT’S JACOB TIME! For the first time all night, he looks worried, and believe me, Jacob is not playing his cards close to his vest. After some panic, though, he says, “I think I know this.” The word is “carcharodont,” and, yup, he knew it! Apparently he also told the announcers he thought he could win. Did Jacob just call his shot?

9:10: Oh my goodness, Mary gets “logodaedaly,” which is stupid hard, and gets it. Compared to Jacob, she’s quiet, but then again everyone is quiet compared to Jacob. Alia is next, equally reserved, and gets “bunuelo,” which is another one I knew from Spanish class.

9:12: Gokul is totally lost on “pampootie,” a type of Irish shoe, but the obscurity doesn’t keep him from making an educated guess. Speaking of which, this is probably a good time to note that last year’s champ, Arvind Mahankali, told me that there are probably 300 words in the English language he doesn’t know how to spell because he hadn’t encountered them yet. And he was banking on the fact that either they wouldn’t find him at the bee, or he could guess correctly if they did.

9:15: Sriram just can’t be shook. “Hexerei,” a German word meaning witchcraft, might as well be “dog.” Ashram is equally badass in his quick dispatch of “vorspiel.” I get the feeling these two might be the last ones standing in about 30 minutes. Ansun might have somethign to say about that, though, with a confident spelling of “cahier.”

9:19: Round 10, which means AHHH YEAH IT’S JACOB! “I know it!” he screams, when presented with the word “kabaragoya.” “I totally know it!” And then he spells it with a “c,” which, let’s be honest, is always the crazy way Jacob was destined to go out. “What?!” he yells, when hears the bell. And then he’s off to the comfort couch, slapping five with everyone as he gets a standing ovation, where we can only pray he’ll get his own interview.

9:20: Mary Horton’s up as one of the final six spellers, and gets the Japanese word “shibuichi.” It’s a bit of a panic moment, but Japanese is predictable, and she’s able to sound it out. We learn right after that when she was five and watched her older brother nearly win, she promised her mom she’d one day triumph. Destiny is so, so close…

9:22: Oh my God, Jacob solo interview! And he does a pretty great job, despite looking a bit shellshocked at the way things ended. Good man, Jacob. Great character.

9:23: Alia is all smiles yet again at she knows “brindisi,” which means a drinking or toasting song. They can’t even rattle these kids with alcohol-related words, age be damned!

9:28: It’s hard for me to imagine any of these last six spellers getting knocked out, but I say that every year and something finally gets them. Not Gokul, though, not yet: “Kalanchoe” is a cinch. Nor Sriram, coming off 6th- and 3rd-place finishes in the past three years, who I think does not know “criollismo,” but has the experience to knock it down. Ashwin is just locked in as he gets “typothetae,” Ansun survives “chalybeate,” and as thought, all six lasted through round 10 following Jacob’s elimination.

9:34: Things are getting super tense, to the point that I’m getting nervous with every word. The whole thing is so fraught with peril! The only competition that compares is Olympic figure skating. Mary gets “aetites,” and whiffs on three straight root word questions. You get the sense she’s donezo, and she almost seems resigned as the clock ticks down. “A,” she begins, and the next letter is “o.” Ding ding ding goes the bell, and poor Mary is out. Revenge for her brother will have to wait, and in a bit of synchronicity, she finished sixth, just like her brother years ago.

9:37: Alia is up, and for the first time, she’s lost that smile. Her word is “irbis,” which is a word for a secretive snow leopard (yes, really) that’s derived from Russian. She’s totally lost, and the clock hits 30 seconds, which means no more questions. She tries “erbiz,” and now we’re down to four spellers.

9:39: The seven-bee streak of Indian-American champions will continue, and now we get to see if Sriram can fight off the last three challengers to the throne everyone expects him to occupy. It starts off hard as hell for Gokul, who gets “bradypodoid,” but sounds his way through it and survives.

9:43: Here he is: The Man, the Myth, the Legend, Sriram. He gets a word meaning “a mythical beast like an antelope but having a goat’s horns and a horse’s tail” with no known origin. Does he get it anyway? He gets it. “Bagwyn” ain’t no thing.

9:45: “Kulturkreis”? No issue for Ashwin. “Croquignole” (a method of waving hair) is child’s play for Ansun. The final four remains intact, and we’re so close to the championship word list, which is the absolute best.

9:51: These kids can’t be kilt. “Eryngo” and “semmel” are slaughtered by Gokul and Sriram, but then Ashwin gets the absolute nightmare “depayse” which means “being out of one’s element.” It’s a great description for Ashwin himself, who tries his valiant best but just can’t envision that “y.” The man I thought could last til the end is out, there will be no family dynasty, and we’re down to three…and I cannnnnnnot take this pressure. If I were on stage at this point, I’d run off crying for sure.

9:56: Ansun knows “ctenoid” (having the margin toothed like a comb), and with three spellers left at the end of this round, IT’S TIME FOR THE CHAMPIONSHIP WORD LIST! This is when even the titans of the game start falling hard and fast. There are 25 words left, and if we get through them all without a champion being decided (which never happens), there will be multiple champs.

9:58: Gokul looks like his pulse is running at about 30 beats per minute as he defines the word “bamboche” on microphone so Dr. Bailly doesn’t have to. Needless to say, it’s not going to trouble him. “Lamentabile” is a musical direction, and the fact that Sriram plays the piano makes it a pretty easy spell. We’re now in a commercial free zone, with the bee having passed the 10:00 end mark, and these guys aren’t in a hurry to leave. Ansun has “lotophagi” on lock-down, and we’re through yet another round.

10:02: Could we have a draw? This would be legendary. Twenty-two words left. Gokul, unlike most of these kids, is a closed book, but even though he hesitates when hearing “abaisse,” he has no trouble. The situation becomes almost comical as “nocifensor” gives Sriram no worries, and Ansun gets the (rather easy, at least to me) “Aeschylean,” derived from the playwright Aeschylus. Nineteen words left.

10:05: In a similar style as “Aeschylean,” Gokul gets “Kierkegaardian,” and I have to say how incredibly tense it is that any of these guys could drop out at any moment. Incredibly enough, Gokul leaves out the original “e,” and I almost think it was some kind of weird accident. He’s not dead until either Sriram or Ansun miss a word, but that lingering bit of hope is put to rest emphatically when Sriram hits “characin.” But Gokul’s a seventh grader, and we can already anticipate that he’ll be next year’s favorite.

10:09: German words are famously difficult for these kids, because the vowels and double consonants can change on a whim from word to word, and Ansun proves he’s as good as any champion when he gets “gemeinschaft.” Sixteen words remain.

10:11: For the first time, Sriram looks truly stumped at “corpsbruder,” which means “a close comrade.” Again, German is the culprit. If he knew the roots, he’d be fine, but he’s having trouble parsing it out. And there it is—he starts with a “k,” and the rest is a disaster. Ansun now has to spell two words correctly—one to finish out the round, one in the championship round—before he wins. Here we go.

10:13: The first word is “antigropelos,” which is “perhaps made up of Greek elements,” says Dr. Bailly. It means “waterproof leggings,” and it has four alternate pronunciations. Ansun lets the clock run down to 40 seconds, and he seems lost. He makes it all the way to the “e,” but that’s where he stumbles, guessing an “o.” The camera shot is split, and once he says the “o,” you can see Sriram recoil in relief—he knew this one, and he knows he’s back in the game. Unbelievable.

10:14: “A word I know this time, please,” requests Sriram, breaking the tension in the room. His request works, as Dr. Bailly gives him the Sanskrit-derived word “skandhas,” and Sriram is all over it. Now we get to Ansun, and the question is, is he shaken from missing his chance to win the championship? There are 13 words remaining now, and while his family rocks in their seats, he gets “Hyblaean,” meaning mellifluous or honeyed, which is a Greek mythological thing. If there are any residue nerves, though, he squashes them and spells it like a champ.

10:17: I can’t believe how intense this is…except, HOLY SHIT, Dr. Bailly somehow just made a “milkshake” reference, as in “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.” Does he not know that’s a sexual reference? He starts out, “Tabitha discovered that while her milkshake brought all the boys to the yard…” before someone beside him yelled out “stop, stop, stop!” He then reversed tack, and read a different sentence, but not before the whole place erupted in laughter and shock. Sriram quickly regained focus, but my God, that’s a legendary spelling bee error. The word is “feijoada,” and Sriram gets it without trouble.

10:20: First audible crowd gasp as Bailly says the word, “augenphilologie.” Ugh. More German, of course. But holy hell, Ansun got it right, for which he should at least get a million dollars even if he doesn’t win the bee. That’s absurd spelling. Sriram is up to the challenge though, blazing through “sdrucciola,” which is some kind of triple rhyme scheme, and also a word that should be outlawed.

10:22: Nine f$*%ing words left!!! This would be an epic draw. And we’re back to weird Russian animals, as Ansun gets “holluschick,” a fur seal to go along with the earlier snow leopard. Problem? Nope. No problem. Trivia: We’ve had three ties in spelling bee history, the last one in 1962, when the words were not quite as difficult.

10:24: “Thymelici” goes down for Sriram. “Paixtle,” a Mexican hay dance, goes down for Ansun. It’s like watching a heavyweight fight, where the big men exchange body blow after body blow. Six words left, and a tie doesn’t seem so ridiculous. “Encaenia” is easy for Sriram, and Ansun has “terreplein” on lock. There are now four words left, BUT, because there has to be enough words left for a championship word, if the boys get the next two, it’s a tie.

10:28: Paul just used my heavyweight analogy, and I’m going to sue. Okay, fine, it was a pretty obvious one. Dammit. One more word for Sriram, which is “stichomythia,” and he wastes no time knocking it out of the park. Dr. Bailly explains that if Ansun gets the next word, the two will be co-champions. That word is “feuilleton,” which is the part of a European newspaper we’d call the ‘feature section.’ He seems worried, and definitely has not encountered this word before…or at least it doesn’t seem like it. Sriram is standing right behind him, and the clock hits 35 seconds. And then 30. Ansun is on his own. He stumbles over the pronunciation, and then…HE BRINGS IT DOWN! What a clutch spell!

And as if this needed to be any greater, Sriram pumps his fist, happy to share the title. “I think we both knew the competition against the dictionary, not each other,” he says as they’re holding the trophy a moment later. “I’m happy to share this trophy with him.” Which is very sweet.

An absolutely incredible bee, and if you’ve read this whole thing, bless you. Until next year, spell on my brothers and sisters.