[OFFICIAL PRONOUNCER, NATIONAL SPELLING BEE]
Ronquils infrequently, if ever, come up in conversation
Chinese characters are fun, if not always accurate
There are better things to do with your time than memorize the dictionary
“Jaunty” is indeed a word, though it won’t help you win at Scrabble
It helps to think of the English language as a horse. Even with all the tools we have to harness and tame it—usage dictionaries, manuals of style, thesauruses—it often manages to buck us off and run wild. You’d think it would be easier. Words fill up the space around you, they cover surfaces and fill pages, they infiltrate your life. But it never seems as though we have full control over their eccentricities.
For many, the National Spelling Bee is the ultimate field of battle, upon which man (well, children no more advanced than eighth grade) is pitted against the language-monster it has created. Those of us who are enthusiasts of spelling bees relish the tenuous nature of it all. Every spring at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., spellers take turns standing in front of a microphone, trying to pluck a spoken word out of the air and make it tangible by selecting from the twenty-six letters in our language and arranging them in a precise order. Watching the bee on television, you can see kids essentially become possessed by a word; they say it, they rinse it around their mouth, they try to draw it in the air with their finger. It is all to conquer the word, to unlock its secret and step grandly upon its slain form in victory. People have fainted in the attempt.
If you were to picture the person who pronounces those words, Jacques Bailly might well be the man your mind comes up with. When I met him in his gabled office in the classics department building at the University of Vermont, he was wearing glasses and a Merriam-Webster baseball cap. Every surface was covered in papers or books—we moved a pile from a chair so I could sit down and shifted other items around so we could squeeze my travel Scrabble game onto a flat plane. We played as we talked. Dr. Bailly was mild-mannered, like a superhero, and gave the impression of a child prodigy all grown up.
THE BELIEVER: Do you find the level of competition has changed since you competed?
JACQUES BAILLY: That’s kind of hard to say. I think it’s a problem with the accuracy of my perceptions. Teaching, I hear a lot of things like, “Kids can’t spell anymore” or “In my time, we knew the difference between ‘there,’ ‘their,’ and ‘they’re,’ and ‘to’ and ‘too,’ and now kids don’t, even when they get to college.” But in the end, it’s like one of those Escher paintings where it looks like the staircase is always going down but it never really can go down. It’s got to be something like that, because I don’t feel like we’re in a period of massive national decline. I think that the spelling bee itself is probably more competitive, although the word lists aren’t any harder. They did get much harder. By about ’90–’91, they were impossibly difficult.
BLVR: In terms of the lengths of the words or the obscure origin?
JB: Well, length isn’t really a factor in spelling a word. You throw me a thirty-letter word and I can spell it with just about as much ease as a ten-letter word or a five-letter word. The real problem in spelling bees is making them gradually more difficult. Here, let me give you a little spelling test. Spell the word “geeldikkop.” It’s from Afrikaans. It’s a South African sheep disease. You want to take a stab?
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