OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — As the final meeting of the Scripps National Spelling Bee word selection panel before the contest enters its seventh hour, speakers don’t seem to care.
Before panelists can discuss the words chosen for the bee, they must hear each word and its source language, part of speech, definition, and example sentence read aloud. Towards the end of the meeting, lead speaker Jacques Bailly and his colleagues – so measured in their pace and meticulous in their pronunciation during the bee – complete this task as quickly as possible. No breaks. No apologies for mistakes.
At the time of this gathering, two days before the bee, the word list is nearly complete. Each word has been reviewed by the jury and entered into the appropriate round of the nearly 100-year-old annual competition to determine the best spelling in the English language.
The work of the Word Panel was a closely guarded secret for decades. That year, Scripps — a Cincinnati-based media company — gave The Associated Press exclusive access to the panelists and their pre-Bee meeting, with the stipulation that The AP would not reveal any words unless they were delisted.
YOU ARE HARD WITH WORDS
The 21 panelists sit around a makeshift, rectangular conference table in a windowless room at the convention center outside of Washington, where the Bee takes place each year. You will be given printouts containing the words #770-1,110 – used in the semi-finals and beyond – with instructions not to let those sheets leave the room.
Hearing the words aloud with the entire panel present – laptops with the Merriam-Webster unabridged dictionary open – sometimes reveals problems. That is exactly what happened late Sunday night. Kavya Shivashankar, the 2009 winner, an ob/gynecologist and newcomer to the panel, agreed with her objection.
The word ‘gleyde’ (pronounced ‘glide’), meaning a shabby old horse and used only in Britain, has an almost homonymous word – glyde – with a similar but not identical pronunciation and meaning. Shivashankar says the different spelling makes the word too confusing, and the rest of the panel quickly agreed to tighten Gleyde altogether. It is not used.
“Nice word, but bye,” says spokesman Kevin Moch.
For panelists, the gathering is the culmination of a year-long process to compile a word list that will challenge, but not embarrass, the 230 middle-aged and elementary-aged participants — and preferably produce a champion within the two-hour broadcast window for Thursday’s evening finals.
The work of the board has changed over the decades. According to James Maguire’s book American Bee, making the list from 1961 to 1984 was a one-man operation overseen by Jim Wagner, an editorial publicity manager for Scripps Howard, and then by Harvey Elentuck, a then-MIT student who approached Wagner for help with the list in the mid-1970s.
The board was established in 1985. The current collaborative approach only began to take shape in the early 1990s. Bailly, the 1980 champion, joined in 1991.
“Harvey… made the whole list,” says Bailly. “I never met him. I was just told, ‘You’re the new Harvey.'”
It’s not just about picking words
This year’s meeting will feature five full-time bee workers and 16 contract panelists. Positions are filled by word of mouth within the spelling community or by referrals from panelists. The group includes five former champions: Barrie Trinkle (1973), Bailly, George Thampy (2000), Sameer Mishra (2008) and Shivashankar.
Trinkle, who joined the panel in 1997, wrote most of her writing by reading magazines such as The New Yorker and The Economist.
“Our goal was to provide spellers with a rich vocabulary that they can use in their daily lives. And the smarter they got, the more they socialized and learned from the same lists, the harder it became to keep a bee with the same words,” says Trinkle.
In most cases, she goes straight to the source – Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged. It’s easier than before.
“The dictionary is on the computer and is easily searchable in many ways – as the spellers know. If they want to find all the words that came into the language in the 1650s, they can do what I sometimes do,” says Trinkle. “The best words come to mind when you scroll through the dictionary.”
Not everyone on the panel submits words. Some work to ensure that the definitions, parts of speech, and other accompanying information are correct; others have the task of ensuring that words of similar difficulty are asked at the right time in the competition; others focus on developing the new multiple-choice questions on the bee’s vocabulary. Those who submit words, such as Trinkle and Mishra, are given assignments throughout the year to find a specific number of a specific difficulty.
Mishra pulls his submissions from his own list he made when he was a 13-year-old speller. He tends towards the “harder end of the spectrum”.
“They’re fun and challenging, and they make me smile, and I know if I were a speller, that word would intimidate me,” says Mishra, 28, who just completed his MBA at Harvard. “I’m not afraid of running out of words and I feel good about it.”
HOW THE BEE EVOLVED
The panel meets several times a year, often virtually, to go through words, revise definitions and phrases, and troubleshoot problems. The process seemed to run smoothly in the 2010s, even amid a surge in so-called “Minor League” beesmany of which are aimed at the descendants of highly educated first-generation Indian immigrants – a group that has come to dominate the competition.
In 2019, a confluence of factors – including a wildcard program that allowed several spellers from competitive regions to reach domestic ones – resulted in an unusually large field of spellers. Scripps had to use the harshest words on his list to choose a dozen finalists. The bee ended in one Eight-way tieand there was no lack of that criticism.
However, Scripps did not fundamentally change how the word panel works. It attracted younger panelists who were more familiar with the way modern spellers learn and prepare. And made format changes to identify a single champion. The wildcard program was scrapped and Scripps added onstage vocabulary questions and a lightning fast tiebreaker.
The panel also began to pull out words that had been avoided in the past. Place names, brands, words without a language of origin: as long as a word is not obsolete or obsolete, it’s fair game.
“They’ve started to realize that they need to dig deeper into the dictionary,” says Shourav Dasari, a 20-year-old former spellchecker and co-founder of SpellPundit with his older sister Shobha, which sells study guides and hosts a popular forum online bee. “Last year we started seeing things like tribal names being some of the most difficult words in the dictionary.”
EVERYTHING IS ACTIVITY
Panel members insist they have little concern for other bees or the dissemination of learning materials and private trainers. But these coaches and entrepreneurs spend a lot of time pondering the words Scripps is likely to use — often quite successfully.
Dasari says the dictionary contains about 100,000 words suitable for bee spelling. He asserts that 99% of the words on Scripps’ list are in SpellPundit’s materials. Anyone who learns all of these words is almost guaranteed to win, Dasari says — but no one has shown they can.
“I just don’t know when anyone will ever be able to fully master the unabridged dictionary,” says Dasari.
Since the bee resumed following the pandemic cancellation in 2020, the panel has been scrutinized primarily for the added vocabulary questions a capricious element, eliminating some of the most talented spellers even if they don’t misspell a word. Last year’s champion Harini Logan, was temporarily suppressed to a vocabulary word, “pullulation” – only to be reinstated minutes later, after arguing that her answer might be construed as correct.
“It gave us a sense of how very, very careful we have to be very, very careful when phrasing these questions,” says Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and lead author of the words for the vocabulary rounds.
Zimmer is also sensitive to criticism that some vocabulary questions assess spellers’ cultural competence rather than their mastery of roots and language patterns. This year’s vocabulary questions contain additional clues that will guide gifted spellers to the answers, he says.
There will always be complaints about the word list, but the main goal of the panel is to make the competition as fair as possible. Missing hyphens or incorrect capitalization, ambiguities about singular and plural nouns or transitive and intransitive verbs – no question is too insignificant.
“That’s really problematic,” says Trinkle, pointing to a word that has a homonym with a similar definition.
Maggie Lorenz, Scripps’ editorial director, agrees: “We’re going to eliminate that word entirely.”