Sassafras. Waterzooi. Koan. Quisling. Fraulein.
The words were flowing at National Harbor, Md., on Wednesday morning, when 281 young contestants started the on-stage preliminaries of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee. Some spellers wrote out the letters on their hands or the bulky placards hanging around their necks. Some fidgeted. One boy greeted the judges with “Howdy!” and another was derailed by langlauf. But in the initial hours of the bee, many of the 8-to-14-year-olds breezed through obscure words as easily as Justin Bieber racing through a red light.
That is what anyone watching ESPN3 will have seen. But there’s more to the bee than what you get on TV. NewsFeed surveyed spelling-bee insiders to find out what people should know before watching the finals on Thursday:
Where the words come from. “The first rule of the committee,” says E.W. Scripps Company spokesman Chris Kemper, “is not admitting that you’re on the committee.” He’s talking about the bee’s word committee, a group that works in secret all year to come up with the trove of spelling words used in the competition. “The committee is the secret sauce of the spelling bee,” Kemper says, “and the identity of those on the committee will not be revealed.” It’s kind of like Skull and Bones, just with more reading and less world domination.
What makes a word worthy of the list. “A good spelling bee word is one that isn’t transparent,” says Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s Editor-at-Large, who is involved with the bee. That means double letters (braggadocio), single letters where you might expect double letters (sassafras), silent letters (mnemonic), and letter combinations that most of us never encounter. American Heritage dictionaries editor Steve Kleinedler points to mashups like the phth- at the beginning of phthongal, which means capable of varying in pitch.
The speller’s most dangerous foe. Beware of the schwa, Sokolowski says. That’s the word for this phonetic symbol: /ə/, the vowel sound that we may hear in America, belief and history. The schwa can be rendered as any vowel and even be silent, in words like rhyth(ə)m, which makes it a nemesis for ambitious young spellers. Sokolowski calls it “the biggest single trap” and credits the dreaded schwa with eliminating some two-thirds of bee contestants.
The inside jokes you’re missing. The 281 kids gathered for the bee socialize outside their cutthroat spelldown. They play Scrabble. They sit through lectures. They sign each others “Bee Keepers,” books that contain bios for each of the contestants. And in order to help quell their nerves, Sokolowski says, the officials will incorporate inside jokes from Bee week into example sentences. So when a contestant asks to hear the word in a sentence and you hear, “Barry accidentally started a conflagration after drinking too much grape juice,” you’ll know why all the kids are yucking it up.
Why English is so well-suited to spelling bees. “The reason we have spelling bees in English,” Sokolowski says, “is because it’s such a mongrel language.” Given that our tongue is made up of words that come from Greek and Latin and Japanese and Native American roots, spelling is much more unpredictable than, say, French—which Sokolowski sums up as “just bad Latin.” Le snap!
Where contestants go after the bee. Jeff Blitz, director of the hit 2002 spelling-bee documentary Spellbound, tells TIME that he was struck by how many of the contestants go on to become doctors and scientists rather than wordsmiths in the media or academia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this year’s cohort most frequently cited math as their favorite subject. “Something about the kind of brain that’s not intimidated by the dictionary in childhood seems well-suited to the work of medicine in adulthood,” Blitz explains. But no matter what job they have, former contestants are likely united in one thing: holding back a lot of eye-rolling and tsk-tsking over the years.
This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.