I am not exactly shy about the fact that three years ago I was one-third of the team (Zyzygy) that won the Racine County Spelling Bee. That’s an accomplishment I am very proud of, but it’s also an achievement that doesn’t seem to carry all that much weight for people who weren’t there to see what a hard-fought contest it was or just how difficult the words were by the end. (I think the average Joe Blow imagines people spelling words like Kangaroo – not realizing that it’s words like Hemimetabolous instead.) But I know- and my two teammates, Darryl Sturino and Walter Hermanns know – and everyone who was in the room that night knows – what we did that night. And the last part of the evening, when it was us head-to-head with a team of literacy council volunteers (who were tough as nails!) was like the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Of course, it was pretty clear that I was the weakest speller of the three of us- and the clearest proof of that was that the following year, when I was out of town for a singing competition, Jeff Barrow stepped into my slot and Zyzygy won in even more convincing fashion. And this past year, they very nearly did so again, but ended up in second place to a very tough new champion. At any rate, this is not fun and games – this is high-level spelling taken very very seriously.
Last night I was on the other end of the microphone, because I served as the Word Pronouncer for the Kenosha County Spelling Bee, which is a major fundraiser for the Kenosha Literacy Council (just as the Racine event benefits the Racine Literacy Council.) Kenosha is sometimes seen as a bit more blue collar than Racine, and the presence of organized crime has added still more grit to its persona – so I guess it should not have come as a huge surprise to me that there has been some serious cheating in the Kenosha bee over the last couple of years. There have been instances of teams sneaking reference materials to their tables – team members mouthing the correct spelling to the teammate at the microphone – and last year a rather blatant instance of an audience member actually slipping up to the front of the room to whisper illegal assistance to one of the teams. In light of all that, the organizers of this event were determined that this year’s competition would be cleaner and fairer – and I felt really honored to be entrusted with such central responsibility in the proceedings.
Here’s how it worked: Each of the twelve teams competing was given a study guide consisting of 385 words – literally ranging from #1 – “ligend” (a group, ion of molecule coordinated to the central ataom in a coordination complex – whatever the heck that means) to #385 – “phthisiology” (the care, treatment and study of tuberculosis.) I was given the same word list two and a half days before the contest, so I could study them and be prepared to correctly pronounce them all. Moreover, it was up to me exactly which words would be read and in what order. What I ended up doing was labelling all 385 words with the letters E, M, or D for Easy, Medium or Difficult . . . which allowed us to make the words gradually harder through the course of the evening. That part was actually relatively easy and kind of fun. The hard part was mastering the pronunciation of words like ‘ziphophyllous” or “xebec” or “rhabdomancy” or “exsiccosis.” The pronunciation is written out as one would find it in the dictionary – but being able to enunciate them clearly without spraining your tongue is the tricky part. (I am very proud of the fact that in the delivering over 200 words through the course of the evening, the only word I mispronounced was “chelate” – which I pronounced “kay-lot” when in fact it should have been pronounced “kay-late.” But all of the five, six and even seven syllable words I managed to spit out without hurting myself or any onlookers.)
In the course of the competition, I had to pronounce each word, read the definition, and then read the given sentence in which the word is used, before restating the word. One of the reasons the organizers of the bee do this is so people can learn a little something through the course of the evening. The unintentionally hilarious part about this was when I found myself reading aloud definitions which might as well have been in Ancient Chinese for as incomprehensible as they were. . such as the aforementioned “chelate” – which is defined as: “combine with a metal so as to form a ring of usually or six atoms in which a central metallic ion is held in a coordination complex by one or more groups, each of which can attach itself to the central ion by at least two bonds.”
Or this one: “Titration” – “ a determination of the reactive capacity usually of a solution; especially the analytical process of successively adding measured amounts of a reagent to a known volume of a sample in solution until a desired end point is reached.”
Fortunately, there were a few definitions that I could actually grasp – and a couple of words were really fun to learn, as such:
Tetralemma: An argument analogous to a dilemma but presenting four alternatives in the premises rather than two.
What a great word! And until the day before yesterday, I never even knew this word existed! I also liked:
Quinquennially: every five years.
Anyway, I was the guy on the mic all night, reading off these words. . . while the panel of four judges to my left were entrusted with determining whether the spelling was correct or not. And every time that red light went on, indicating a misspelling, there would be an audible groan in the audience followed immediately by heartfelt applause – because people realized what a tough challenge this was, and anyone willing to put themselves on the line like this deserved some applause. And at the end of the evening, the last two teams left standing were Gateway Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. . . and they went at it for a long, long time before finally Parkside went down on “ballabile.” (a dance in classical ballet) and Gateway took it all. it was a neat moment, especially because Parkside’s team consisted of at least one brilliant professor, while Gateway’s team was comprised entirely of staff members ( two of the four team members were guidance counselors, while the other two were secretaries in the business office. ) So in an academic exercise like this spelling bee, the victory of GTC over UW-P felt a little bit like David slaying Goliath.
And I walked out of there feeling very pleased – very relieved – and also just a tiny bit sad that the spelling bee ended before I had a chance to pronounce “emmeleia” (solemn dance used in Greek tragedy) or “phyllophagous” (feeding on leaves). Now I guess I’ll just have to be on the lookout for opportunities to use them in the course of my daily conversation.
Wish me luck with that.
pictured: GB in the midst of the competition. The woman seen behind me is the Scribe, whose prescribed duty through the course of the night is to carefully transcribe what each team spells. . . in case any disputes arise.