Monday, June 02, 2008

I feel like a m-o-r-o-n

So I missed one of my favorite sporting events on television this past weekend. I can’t believe Tivo did not notify me that it was time once again for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
I can’t explain it but I am fascinated by this event. Maybe it’s because ESPN considers it a “sport.” Maybe it’s because I was the spelling champ at Windsor Elementary School in the second grade.
Maybe it’s because Americans suck at spelling and it’s nice to see a bunch of kids spelling complex words without the aid of a Microsoft spell checker.
I first became hooked on the Scripps spelling bee several years ago while channel surfing and stopping on one of the 87 ESPN channels. I’ve decided that ESPN has more channels than actual sports, which probably explains why I can see such raw athletic pursuits as keg tossing, women’s bodybuilding and horseshoe pitching all from the privacy of my couch.
On this particular evening, none of those events interested me so I kept clicking until I came upon a bunch of junior-high aged children, most with glasses, some with peach fuzz under their noses and all with pained expressions on their faces as they struggled to spell words that were never on any SAT test that I took. I never used any of them while writing for The Palm Beach Post newspaper. As far as I could tell, none of these words even existed. And yet these kids plowed through them as if they were taken from a first-grade reading book.
I was transfixed. I marveled at the competitive nature and the pressure. Yes, the Scripps spelling bee is pressure packed, as evidenced by one contestant who fainted onstage one year yet recovered, returned immediately to the stage and still spelled his word correctly.
Of course my favorite part of the Bee is the fact that it has announcers. Since this event is broadcast on ESPN, the network has to hire commentators to describe every scintillating SPELL-binding moment. I’m not sure if the guys they hire were new to the network and working their way up, or if they had committed some grievous violation and were demoted. Whatever the reason, they are always determined to make the Scripps spelling bee every bit as tingling as a sudden death playoff at the Masters.
Well, it's a beautiful day in Washington D.C. Chip.
That’s right Jack, The air is thick with the smell of nouns, verbs and dangling participles.
We've got a top-notch bunch of kids who are going to stand on a stage with numbers around their necks and do nothing for most of the time. And we'll cover every step of the action.
You know Jack, a lot's been said that American kids are too lazy to spell.
I disagree Chip. I think Americans are excellent spellers, myself included.
Okay Jack, spell finite.
That's easy...F-I-N-E-K-N-I-G-H-T.
Let's go to a commercial Jack.
According to my favorite information source, Wikipedia, the Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925, and was won by Frank Neuhauser, who spelled gladiolus, which is either the center part of the sternum or a flowering plant having sword-shaped leaves. Upon reading that I hope I never have to visit a hospital with gladiolus problems, as I don’t want the doctor pulling plants from my backyard and saying, “they look okay to me!”
Through the years, some of the winning contestants seemed to get off easy. In 1934 Sarah Wilson won by spelling deteriorating. The following year Clara Moller correctly spelled intelligible to achieve Spelling Bee glory. Other winning words included therapy, initials, vignette and condominium. Melody Sachko spelled condominium in 1956, perhaps becoming the only spelling bee champ to spell something that many people own at least once in their lives.
The guy who got off the easiest had to be 1984 champion Daniel Greenblatt who won by spelling (are you ready?) luge! The winning word had four letters? That’s like Tom Brady winning the Super Bowl by walking 100 yards through the defense.
Obviously the organizers of the spelling bee had egg on their faces following Mr. Greenblatt’s victory for the winning words got infinitely harder afterwards. In 1985, Balu Natarajan won for spelling milieu. It should also be noted that Balu Natarajan correctly spelled his own name, which I’m sure earned him extra points. In fact, having a nearly unintelligible name seems to be a prerequisite to winning the bee, as Pratyush Buddiga (2002), Sai R. Gunturi (2003), and Anurag Kashyap (2005) can attest.
In keeping with that theme, 12-year-old Sameer Mishra from Lafayette, Indiana won this year’s contest. The young Mishra lad’s fallen competitors included Sidharth Chand, Samia Nawaz and Kavya Shivashankar. According to the national spelling bee website, Mishra plays the violin, enjoys computer games, likes math and science and aspires to be a neurologist.
When I was 12 I aspired to spell “aspire.”
Mishra blitzed the competition by spelling such commonly used words as sinicize, hyphaeresis, taleggio, nacarat, and numnah. Let me point out that the Microsoft spell checker has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what any of those words mean as evidenced by the squiggly red line that appeared under each word when I typed it into a Word document. I had to go to Encarta (the smarter Microsoft application) to learn that “sinicize” means “to acquire a Chinese idiom, form or cultural trait.” Hyphaeresis is “the omission of a sound, letter, or syllable from a word.” If you want a semi-soft cheese made from whole cow’s milk, ask for some “taleggio.” If you wake up and your skin is a pale red color with a cast of orange, it may appear “nacarat.” Finally, the next time you ride a horse, make sure it has a “numnah,” which is a thick felt pad that prevents the saddle from moving.
Which leads to my beef with the National Spelling Bee. Why spell words that you’re never going to use in regular conversation? Want to crown a spelling bee champ? Make him or her wake up the day following the victory, walk down the streets of Washington DC where the contest is held, engage passing strangers in conversation and use every one of the words spelled in the competition.
Hello my name is Sameer. Can you please direct me to Chinatown? I’d like to sinicize before I leave town.
I don’t know what would be weirder: the look the kid would get or the fact that ESPN would broadcast the whole thing live.

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