The Scripps National Spelling Bee – Can You Spell These Words?




Nope, spell check does not work for everything. Spell check correctly identified the first word, Weltschmerz. It correctly identified that the second spelling, weltschmertz, is incorrect, but had no suggestions for it. Ditto Ursprache.

But ursprache is correct. After 20 rounds of competition, it was the winning word for 13 year old Katherine (Kerry) Close of New Jersey last night in the 79th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Katherine won over $40,000 worth of prizes, was the first champion to be featured in a prime time broadcast on ABC, and defeated 275 finalists.

“But mom,” my 15 year old son the third year Latin scholar argues “who needs to know words like this anyway?” OK, some of the words seemed pretty obscure. I was surprised at the number of words in the final round that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with English. If you think “weltschmerz” and “ursprache” sound foreign, try “giocoso”, “kundalini”, “aubade”, “heiligenschein”, “austausch”, “hukilau”, “yizkor”, and my personal favorite, “escargotiere”.

Contestants asked for the word in a sentence, alternate pronunciations, the etymology (language of origin). They visualized words by writing them with fingers on their hands.

By the way, how many of us in eighth grade knew the word “etymology”?

The 13 top spellers featured in the final round are an impressive group of students. They come from public, private, and parochial schools. One student is home schooled. Spelling is not their whole life. Many are musicians, playing instruments, participating in orchestras or bands. Some are involved in church. The winner, Kerry, is an avid runner. She will attend a special high school for students specializing in math, technology, and science next year.

These students are not only smart, they are disciplined and systematic in whatever they do. I was really impressed with their ability to figure out a spelling of a word given a brief understanding of the word’s origins. This isn’t just rote memorization, this is logic and reasoning. For the first time ever, ABC featured bright young people THINKING live on national TV, and we all got a glimpse of how that thought process works.

Why spell ursprache? For the same reason people run in marathons. It is a marathon word. You don’t need to run every day, but if you want to survive a marathon, you run every day. You don’t spell ursprache every day either – but in the process of learning to spell it you learn so much more! All 275 brains are in top condition and ready for the next challenge. What great problems will they solve next?

I hope the spelling bee will continue to be broadcast in years to come. It is such a treat to watch the brightest students in action!