I’ve always prided myself on the size of my vocabulary. It’s larger than that of most people I know. And I’m a good speller; I spell words better than most people I know. I’m probably not world-class, but I’m definitely competitive.
Ever since I learned about the annual Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet (spelling bee), I’ve competed every year I’ve been able to. I’ve only missed one or two over the past decade.
I’ve never won. I’ve been a runner-up several times, and that’s surely gratifying, but winning the top spot is on my bucket list. It will happen one day.
The Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet is held on the third Saturday of every February at Manuel’s Tavern. This year was the 48th competition.
Originally, the Meet was held in Midtown at the now-demolished Stein Club. In honor of the original hosting location, the winner each year is presented with a beer stein engraved with their name and one of the words they spelled correctly. When my good friend/arch-nemesis Ed won the Meet several years ago, he requested the word “octothorpe,” which was one of the words that carried him to victory.
My partner and I arrived at Manny’s at around six this past Saturday. Her parents had already scored us a table, not far from where the Committee had set up its reference material and audio equipment, and next door to the table claimed by Ed and some of his other friends.
The Bee wouldn’t start for another hour, so we ordered something to eat. I limited myself to a Greek salad; it wouldn’t do to grow logy under the influence of a veggie burger and steak fries. I had to stay sharp!
Most people are familiar with the single-elimination format of the Scripps-Howard scholastic spelling bees. The Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet is different from that. Necessarily so, as the popularity of the event generates hundreds of competitors each year, so the traditional bee format would last long into the night. This battle is waged with pencil and paper.
For Round One, twenty words are read out by two different individuals, preferably one man and one woman, and a definition is also given. Spellers write down their best guesses for each word. These twenty words are usually “common words that are often misspelled.” Furthermore, the first word is always one that has recently been in the news. In 2009, the first word in Round One was “shovel-ready.” In 2017, the first word was “emoluments.”
After all twenty words are read, their proper spellings are given. The (roughly) twenty people who spelled the most words correctly are advanced to Round Two. This will always include everyone who spelled all twenty words correctly, and everyone who spelled nineteen words correctly. Usually, it also includes everyone who only spelled eighteen words correctly. Some years, when the first round has been especially challenging, they have to go as deep as those who only spelled seventeen words correctly to get twenty people for advancement.
Here are this year’s Round One words. Where a word is struck through, it means I misspelled it. The correct spelling will be to the right in parentheses. Also, the correctly spelled version of each word is a link to its definition.
- chinion (chignon)
- parley (parlay)
This was a tough first round for me; I usually don’t miss any words this early.
I almost misspelled the first word as “gnomophobia,” because I have a tendency to overthink everything. Fortunately, I decided that since it’s a neologism, it’s unlikely to have a complicated spelling, and I got it right.
Several people in the room misspelled “sassafras” by putting a fifth “s” at the end. Of course I didn’t make this mistake, because I know that “frass” is caterpillar shit, and that “sassafras” has nothing to do with caterpillar shit.
I couldn’t have misspelled “vellum,” of course, because I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons. Consult your Advanced D&D Player’s Handbook.
“Colonnade,” in addition to being “a series of columns set at regular intervals and usually supporting the base of a roof structure,” is the name of an indefinably creepy “meat and three” restaurant over on Cheshire Bridge Road, tucked in among the lamp stores and jack shacks. Of course I couldn’t misspell that word.
“Chignon” I’d simply never encountered before, and I’m generally not good at my French roots, so there was that.
I wrote “parlay” correctly at first, then crossed it out and replaced it with the incorrect spelling. In my defense, “parley” is also a word.
Fortunately, this year eighteen correct spellings was enough to advance to Round Two. Ed also missed two words, but they were a different two from mine.
Round Two consisted, as always, of fifteen words that are much more difficult than the words in the first round. Here they are:
- laurakeet (lorikeet)
- knowosphere (noosphere)
- asterysm (asterism)
- farfalli (farfalle)
I got four wrong out of these fifteen. I’m angry at myself for not knowing “noosphere,” because the definition revealed its connection to the word “nootropic,” which is a word I’ve known ever since seeing the movie Lawnmower Man.
I guess “lorikeet” isn’t a very difficult word, objectively speaking. But many words are difficult if you don’t know them.
Misspelling “asterism” was due to drawing a false analogy in my head between that word and such words as “paroxysm” and “aneurysm.” “Asterism” looked more science-y with “-ysm” on the end.
I was angry at the Italian language for missing “farfalle.” Who puts an “e” on the end of a type of pasta, instead of an “i”? That’s just basic pasta-ing!
“Catalpa” was a lucky guess, as was “swarf,” and as was “dactylic,” because I almost doubled the “l.”
The rest of the words I already knew how to spell, including “farded,” which I learned about last year via an emailed language newsletter that I read. The adolescent mirth that was had with “farded” (pronounced just like you’d assume) in the room and at our table was one of the highlights of the evening. Everyone became twelve years old again.
Fifteen competitors were advanced to the third round. Advancement is based on the total number of words spelled correctly in the two rounds. So if, after two rounds, you’ve spelled all thirty-five words correctly, you’re sure to be advanced. They usually accept everyone who has spelled as few as thirty words correctly.
I hoped they’d go deeper this year, because I had only spelled twenty-nine words correctly. But they did not. I usually make it to the third round, but this year I failed. My only consolation was that Ed also failed. Which, don’t get me wrong, was still pretty sweet.
So, thus eliminated, I continued to play along, for funsies. Normally ten or more people are advanced to the third round. For some reason, this year only nine were taken. The next round consisted of ten very difficult words:
analsegnosia(anosognosia) menheer(menhir) quandam(quondam) beautieau(buteo) madeleisais(matelassé) leparine(leporine) mahoud(mahout) caricol(caracole) bidingbop(bibimbap) heirophant(hierophant)
I’ll note that several of these words are so obscure that Microsoft Word underlined even the correct spellings with the squiggly red line indicating that it thinks they’re misspelled. But they can all be found in Merriam-Webster’s online database. I really didn’t know any of these words except for “hierophant,” and I even misspelled that, because I forgot to apply the classic rule, “i before e.” Not that it mattered (to me) at this point.
Six contestants survived to do battle in the fourth round of five words:
- sophrosony (sophrosyne)
- kaleidiate (chalybeate)
- deleum (bdellium)
- psychgaber (zeitgeber)
- physagh (taoiseach)
Difficult as these words were (and I didn’t spell any of them correctly), they’re slightly easier than the fourth-round words in most years. As you can probably guess by my attempt to spell “chalybeate,” I heard it wrong; I wouldn’t have spelled it correctly in any case, but I should have been able to hear the difference between a “d” and a “b.” I think there were several words like that this year: they weren’t pronounced as clearly as I think they should have been. I recognize that sounds like sour grapes, and could well be that.
My absurdly bad attempt to spell “zeitgeber” reminds me again that, despite two years of high school German, I am unable to recognize German-derived words when I hear them, and I should be ashamed.
As soon as I heard the definition of “taoiseach” (the Irish word for that nation’s prime minister), I knew I would utterly fail to spell it even close to correctly. I’m convinced that Irish “spelling” is actually a practical joke on the rest of the world.
This year’s winner was Julie Tuttle, who spelled a total of 40 words correctly. This was her second victory; she first took top prize in 2015. If she ever wins a third time, she will be forcibly retired, but invited to join the Committee, and my competition will number one fewer.
Tied for second place were Alan Weakley (<vaudeville>VERY weakly!</vaudeville>) and Fred Roberts. Alan won first place back in 2011. This was Fred’s first appearance on the podium.
So that’s it for this year. I guess I need to hit the books and get ready for next year. There will always be a next year.
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