Roy Seligman received the word ambystoma — but it’s not clear whether he missed a letter. The judges are listening to a replay to determine whether he gave it a Y or an I. His father shakes his head as they wait for the judges’ decision.
After the word-meaning round, we reach a commercial break for spellers and viewers alike.
Which means a chance to revisit the words that have stymied reporters, editors and readers in their own spelling bees of childhood.
The Times reporter Daniel Victor? Constitution. “The teacher gave me a much harder word than everyone else (I deserved it, was very cocky going in).”
The editor Gina Lamb? Lieutenant, sixth grade. “I dropped the i. I didn’t know it then, but that slipup and my desire to understand the word’s origin were among the earliest steps on my path to learning French.”
The reporter Mike Isaac? Buccaneer in third grade. “Friggin pirates.”
The MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow? “When I went to the county bee, I got *nothing* right,” she tweeted. “Zippo. Instant and complete failure. I was so nervous I couldn’t have even spelled my own name.”
Readers knew how it felt, too.
Marilyn Hume, 78, from Wenatchee, Wash.:
Since the fifth-grade spelling bee, I’ve never forgotten how to spell “biscuit” — or is it “buiscit”? True humiliation.
Mia Karimabadi, 21, from Ellicott City, Md.:
My parents tasked my second-grade brother with helping me study for my sixth-grade spelling bee. While studying, I spelled “missile” as “M-I-S-T-L-E,” and he absent-mindedly told me I was correct. Fast forward to the actual spelling bee, I was thrilled when the judge asked me to spell missile! With all the confidence in the world, I spelled “M-I-S-T-L-E.” Imagine my surprise when I got disqualified.
Daniel Notman, 26, from Waco, Texas:
When I was a sixth grader in the county spelling bee, I was given the word ‘fastidious,’ but the judge pronounced it ‘festidious,’ like beginning of the word ‘festival.’ I was so glad I’d studied the word! If I hadn’t, I would’ve spelled it with an ‘e.’ After studying linguistics in college, I became the pronouncer for my county spelling bee. And I’ve become quite fastidious in my pronunciations. After ‘fastidious,’ I lasted another four rounds before I was felled by ‘protrusile.’ That, too, was slightly mispronounced, but I wouldn’t have known it anyway. (The winning word was ‘kookaburra.’ I was livid. Any kid from the ’90s who grew up watching Barney & Friends would’ve known ‘kookaburra.’)
Chaitra Thummala, who entered her first spelling bee at 5 and won it, wastes no time in selecting the meaning of bathyal, which relates to the deepest part of the ocean.
It’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement and nerves of these children and their families. Kory Stamper: “I have this brownie sitting right here and I have not taken a single bite because I’m SO NERVOUS FOR ALL THE LITTLE KIDS.”
Nematodes prove no issue for Dhroov Bharatia, of Texas. “Nematodes are roundworms that are mostly microscopic (although some are upsettingly large) that have adapted to a spectacular range of homes, from Antarctic soil to the inside of your gut,” The Times said in an article from this February.
Another speller knocks out another word meaning: saxicolous. In a 1964 article, The Times wrote, “Saxicolous bromeliads grow on rock or in crevices of rock ledges (‘saxum’ is Latin for rock).”
Kory Stamper, our guest lexicographer, is a big fan of the word meaning round: “It’s fun to be able to show that you don’t just know how to spell ‘photic,’ but that you know that ‘phos’ means ‘light.’ That’s mastery!”
Zaila Avant-garde hears the word “dysphotic” and beams. She knew exactly what that word meant. (It means the opposite of beaming: having feeble illumination.)
Friends and family of Roy Seligman are sitting in the audience holding the flag of the Bahamas. He knocks out batrachian, relating to frogs.
Kory Stamper, our guest lexicographer, said the word meaning round is actually a way of getting back to the roots of the bee. When bees started in the 19th century, they were held in schoolrooms and were part of a broader vocabulary exercise. Ms. Stamper: “It wasn’t this gamified thing that we do now.”
The word meaning round! Here, spellers will have to guess the meaning of the word through multiple choice…