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Casting Their Spell: The Great Eight Knew Etymology Was Important

Spelling Bee

(Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Let’s face it, when it comes to the spirit of competition in this country there are stirring phrases like, “Play Ball,” “Drivers, Start Your Engines” and “Riders Up” that really get the adrenaline bubbling.

But over time, two other idioms have become just as popular in our vernacular: “Can you use the word in a sentence” or “What is the language of origin.”

Yes, while the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors were battling it out in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was going on – and on – in Maryland.

In fact, it went into overtime and frankly we couldn’t take our eyes off it.

Every year we are astounded by the linguistic dexterity of these gifted students. These kids are obsessed with spelling and have trained to be among the nation’s best since they were in first or second grade. They actually love dictionaries. Imagine that?

This year’s competition was the greatest in the 94-year history of the sport of spelling. Eight co-champions were named after they survived the 20th round by correctly dealing with one last impossibly complex word.

We respectfully bow to Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao and Rohan Raja. These kids spelled the final 47 words correctly, going through five consecutive perfect rounds to share the title.

And then they went to bed, got up early Friday morning and appeared on “Today,” lanyards still hung around their necks from the night before.

“Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory,” the Bee’s pronouncer Jacques Bailly told the contestants when they decided to give each of them the $50,000 grand prize. “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list. But we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition.”

Just to prove its point, the Bee followed that announcement and held three more rounds. And every word was spelled C-O-R-R-E-C-T-L-Y.

The Spelling Bee has earned its place in American folklore. It draws spectacular ratings on ESPN, attracting viewers to the sports cable monolith that would have no idea who Stephen A. Smith is.

The composure and courtesy of these spellers is endearing. They often say hello to Bailly, the 1980 champion, when called to the dais. They respectfully ask their questions about pronunciation, derivation, and usage and then say thank you after knocking another word out of the park – sometimes within 45 seconds after first hearing it.

(Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

This is not the first time the Spelling Bee crowned co-champions. They did so from 2014-16. After that, the Bee instituted a new system by which written tiebreakers would be used to break deadlocks. They never used it and disposed of it.

According to ESPN, the first sign more than one or two kids might win the event came when it took 5 ½ hours to trim the field of 50 to 16. And that was four more spellers than usually make it to the final round.

It all started Sunday with 562 competitors, all 15 or younger who had not passed eighth grade. Contestants came from all 50 states, as well as several territories and the Bahamas, Canada, Germany, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan, and South Korea.

The rules called for no more than three to share the title. No one ever considered what might happen if more than three presented themselves as serious contenders.

“When we began to comprehend the mettle of our finalists, we began to think about what could possibly happen this evening,” said Paige Kimble, the Bee’s executive director. “We went into the evening with the plan that we executed on this evening.”

The kids seemed to be having a great time. They began calling themselves “octo-champs” once it was over. And Sohun, 13, said a few words on behalf of the group.

“Spellers improve. It’s natural, and the rate at which people are improving is amazing,” said Sohun, who won the North South Foundation spelling bee and South Asian Spelling Bee. “Everyone learns, everyone gets so much better.”

Of course, there were some people who felt the need to criticize what happened in the final round. The person who founded the South Asian Spelling Bee told ESPN the organization took it too easy on the spellers.

“This would never happen at my bee,” said Rahul Walia. “They need to use harder words. The words are available.”

Thanks to ESPN, here are the final words the kids needed to spell correctly to survive: auslaut, erysipelas, bougainvillea, aiguillette, pendeloque, palama, cernuous and odylic.

“We’re throwing the dictionary at you and so far, you are showing the dictionary who is boss,” said Bailly.