The best spellers from across the U.S. demonstrated their semantic prowess at the 86th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee in Maryland on Thursday. Eleven plucky finalists battled each other before millions of viewers live on ESPN. With a grand prize of $30,000 up for grabs, whose lexicon would endure longest? TIME was there every step of the way.
8 p.m.: ESPN welcomes viewers to National Harbor, Md. Eleven spellers remain in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, out of more than 11 million. The kids march onto a stage that could be a CNN studio, if Wolf Blitzer were partial to honeycomb motifs.
8:06: The first contestant, a 14-year-old girl from St. Augustine, Fla., correctly spells greffier. The commentator calls this “an impressive opening salvo,” making it clear that the commentary will be a highlight of the evening.
8:07: Another girl from the Sunshine State correctly spells psephologist. “They’re not competing against each other,” says an announcer. “They’re competing against the dictionary.” Which is kind of like saying that high-jumpers aren’t competing against each other, just against gravity.
8:09: The announcers play up the drama of the match. Fourteen-year-old Amber Born, “the dark horse” from Marblehead, Mass., is also Bee Week’s resident comedienne. Teensy, tuba-playing Vanya Shivashankar, an 11-year-old from Olathe, Kans., has an older sister who won the bee; they could become the first sibling champs since the bee started in 1925.
8:12: A third young lady is asked to spell pathognomonic. She starts: “P-a-t-h-o-g-n-e…” A bell dings. The deceptively friendly sound means she’s out. The schwa, that vowel sound one hears at the beginning and end of America, claims its first victim.
8:18: There are ten left. Pranav Sivakumar, a 13-year-old boy from Tower Lakes, Ill., walks up to the microphone. He is all business. He quizzes the officials about etymology like he’s a parent asking a naughty child questions he already knows the answers to. He nails odontoloxia.
8:20: Amber’s up. Before requesting the sample sentence, the resident comedienne asks, “Is it funny?” The crowd loves this, because they know the announcers try to make sentences amusing—like when they later provide this sample about a medieval wind instrument: “The hardest part about taking a chalumeau lesson is the time travel.” Elbow, elbow.
8:28: After a commercial break, there is a montage of 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali, from Bayside Hills, N.Y., who inexplicably, and wonderfully, gives most of his ESPN interview wearing a red satin smoking jacket. He correctly spells glossophagine.
8:41: ESPN cuts to a clip that deflates the pride Americans have been feeling, as young minds whirled through the likes of tournedos, panjandrum and sciomancy. The video shows an ESPN host asking average Americans in Washington, D.C., how to spell the President’s name. Responses include: “Baroke;” “Barck;” and “Baraq.” Apparently the first person who got it right was from Tokyo. It is Miss South Carolina all over again.
8:45: The contestants resume. Another young lady is taken by the schwa, when she spells doryline as “doraline.” Nine remain.The contestants breeze through einkanter and catachresis. Arvind churns out trichocercous. “Crushed it over the fence!” the ESPN announcer says—because that’s how you narrate spelling bees on a sports network.
9:05: Envoutement. Sansculottic. Lebensraum. Emmeleia. Transrhenane.
9:14: Shillibeer. Aposematic. Ushabti. The kids aren’t slipping; the announcers aren’t slacking. “He is hungry!” one explains. And neither are the videos. “Most of us can’t even spell misspell,” a voiceover soon tells viewers at home. “They can. BUT THEY CAN’T.”
9:27: In a new round, the first contestant is given melocoton, the word for a peach grafted on a quince rootstock, of course. The clock ticks down from two minutes. Lights flash yellow, then red. “M-e-l-e …” she attempts. The bell dings, she says “thank you” and leaves the stage. “You didn’t see the heartbreak,” the announcer says. “You saw the class.”
9:42: Spellers pound out the likes of mamaliga and cravenette, before khaburi and cipollino take down two other brave spellers. Then Zenaida knocks out little Vanya, putting an end to the dream of two sisters both winning the national bee. The schwa dooms another contestant in paryphodrome.
9:54: Only rib-tickling Amber and three boys remain. She falters in the face of hallali, the sound of a huntsman’s bugle. One of the boys soon succumbs to the schwa, in ptyalagogue. And that leaves only two: all-business Pranav Sivakumar and Arvind “Smoking Jacket” Mahankali.
10:16: Arvind spells crapaud. Pranav counters with haupia. Arvind raises him kaumographer.
10:22: At this point, the judges are using a sheet of 25 final words. If both can spell them all, both become co-champions. Pranav hears the word cyanophycean. He asks questions. He has the wrong root. And then he, like so many others, goes down swinging against a vowel.
10:24: Arvind has to spell two words right in a row to win. The pronouncer gives him tokonoma. He takes his time. He makes it out. “If you spell correctly this next word,” an announcer says, “you will be declared the Scripps national champion.”
10:25: Arvind, a two-time third-place finisher, gets his final word. It’s knaidel, a German-derived Yiddish word for a small dumpling. The words that knocked him out of previous bees were similarly German. So the crowd (hip to this back story) laughs before they fall hush. He quizzes the panel for information. He waits. The clock nears zero. “Knaidel,” he finally says. “K-N-A-I-D-E-L.”
10:27: Arvind has won. Ticker tape rains down all around him. But he doesn’t smile. He holds up a giant trophy that looks like it might snap his arms, and an ESPN host comes over to interview him. After all these years and all this work, it’s done: so what will he do now? “I will spend the summer,” he says, “studying physics.”