The Universal Notebook: Spelling in the age of spell-check

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There was something quaintly old fashioned about two dozen school kids from all over the state gathering at Bowdoin College on Saturday, March 25, for the 2023 Maine State Spelling Bee. But when I asked my lovely wife Carolyn what she’d like to do for her birthday, she said she’d like to go to the spelling bee.

Most years we watch some of the Scripps National Spelling Bee on television, amazed at the obscure and arcane words these young spellers can master, words like “stromuhr,” “cymotrichous,” “scherenschnitte” and “koinonia.” Not only would I not be able to spell them. I’m not even sure I’ve typed them correctly.

Of course, since the 1980s it hasn’t really been all that important that I know how to spell. Spell-check on my computer takes care of that, though none of the four words above are in the spell-check glossary. Then, too, I am confident that anything the computer misses my editors will catch. [Editor’s note: This is correct.]

Edgar Allen BeemI chose those four example words because they are some of the winning words from the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2008. Every winner of the national spelling bee since then has been of South Asian descent.

At first I thought Indian-American students were just preternaturally good spellers, but it didn’t take much research to discover that beginning with a national winner in 1984, the South Asian community developed a sense of pride and unity in spelling excellence. Indian-American spellers have been known to study words 10 hours a day with a variety of spelling coaches.

Winning the national bee is a source of pride, but it is also a source of cash. The winner of the national spelling bee receives $50,000, the second place finisher $25,000, third place $15,000, etc.

Every participant in the Maine State Spelling Bee received an L.L. Bean backpack filled with books and swag. The winner, seventh grader Evan Trieu of St. Brigid School in Portland, also gets to compete in the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. on May 28.

Spelling bees are not as popular in Maine as they once were. Not long ago, some 110 schools participated. This year only 65 entered. There are 569 schools in Maine.

Contestants must not have passed their 16th birthday or graduated from the 8th grade. Most of the Maine competitors were seventh and eighth graders, but there were two sixth graders and one fourth grader.

The words the Maine kids were asked to spell ranged from the simple (“storm,” “towel,” “banana”) to the challenging (“abhorrence,” “ebullience,” “myoglobin”) to the downright unfair (“wushu,” “scroup,” “screeno”).

But it wasn’t always the spelling that tripped the students up. The first contestant missed the first word of the bee (“bubbly”) because she thought the pronouncer said “bubbling.” Frankly, I couldn’t understand some of the pronouncer’s pronunciations no matter how many times he repeated them. “Thwartwise” sounded like “portwise” and “fortwise” to me. And he offered several pronunciations of “ebullience,” except, to my ear, the correct one.

Being a good speller is one of many attributes of being a good student, but in and of itself it’s probably not going to take you very far in life. Copy editors don’t get rich. [This is also correct.]

On the other hand, the only Mainer to ever win the national spelling bee, 12-year-old Sarah Wilson of Gray, went on to become a lawyer for the Internal Revenue Service. She retired in 1986 as Head of the Exempt Organizations Branch of the Chief Counsels’ Office.

Sarah Wilson’s grand prize for spelling “brethren” back in 1934 was $500. That’s $11,225 in today’s currency.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen review column.

 

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