OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — The finals of the 84th Scripps National Spelling Bee began Thursday night by remembering its first two champions.
With Jeopardy uber-champion Ken Jennings and eight former winners in the house, the bee paid tribute to Frank Neuhauser and Pauline Bell, who both died in their 90s recently. Neuhauser won in 1925 with the word “gladiolus” and Bell won in 1926 with the “cerise,” so bee officials placed an arrangement of cerise-colored gladioli at the base of the trophy pedestal onstage.
Then the 13 finalists entered the stage, touching the trophy along the way, took a bow and resumed competing for the spelling crown that comes with more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
The finalists were all who remained from the 275 spellers from across the country and world who arrived at the start of the week in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The concluding rounds were broadcast in prime time for the sixth consecutive year.
The spelling bee kids just keep getting better and better. Even words like “chlorthalidone,” ”dreikanter,” ”renminbi” and “helichrysum” couldn’t sufficiently narrow down the field in the semifinals, which needed 95 minutes of overtime earlier Thursday to whittle the competitors from 41 to 13.
“There were, like, one or two words I’m glad I didn’t get, but the ones that I got were fairly easy,” said 14-year-old Joanna Ye of Carlisle Pa., who was able to say that with a straight face about her words “brachygraphy,” ”pinetum,” ”rocaille” and “hypotrichosis.”
“The hard part’s yet to come,” she added.
Joanna and Laura Newcombe of Toronto were the top returning finishers from last year. Laura and another finalist, Veronica Penny of Rockland, Ontario, were each hoping to become the first Canadian to win the bee.
The youngest finalist was 10-year-old Dhivya Murugan of Denver, who was born in India and was one of several Indian-Americans to advance. An Indian-American had won the bee three straight years and eight of the previous 12, a run that began when Nupur Lala captured the crown in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary “Spellbound.”
“It does make me feel a little more confident, seeing as how most of the champions since Nupur Lala have been Indian,” said Prakash Mishra, a 13-year-old eighth grader from Waxhaw, N.C. “I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll continue the chain.'”
It’s become a trend for Indian-Americans winners to want to grow up to be neurosurgeons, but Prakash would prefer a career in particle physics.
“You’ve got to have something different, don’t you?” he said.
Prakash speaks Hindi, French, German, Spanish and English and had a bag full of good luck charms, including a pen and a little bee that lights up. His sister was wearing her lucky necklace and he was wearing his lucky shirt. Maybe all that stuff worked — he confidently knew all of his semifinal words, not having to guess at a single one.
That wasn’t the case for some of the other spellers. Fourteen-year-old Dakota Jones of Las Vegas, a Boy Scout who is only one step away from making Eagle, needed every bit of his etymology acumen to survive the semis.
“Two of them I never really heard before,” Dakota said, “and I just sounded them out mostly and guessed them.”
The words that nearly stumped him? “Espadon,” a sword, and “solenne,” a music-related word.
The bee is always a surefire bet for suspense and overall entertainment, which is why the semifinals and finals have become staples for television. Fourteen-year-old Surjo Bandyopadhyay of Lusby, Md., was especially riveting to watch. Presented with the medical term “lysozyme,” he blurted out: “May I please have all the information on this word?”
Surjo then shifted his eyes, wrinkled his brow and nodded his head as he listened to the definition, origin and a sentence — then spelled the word correctly. In the next round, he puffed his cheeks, thrust his arms forward and spelled “phyllomancy” so fast that the judges paused for what seemed like forever before nodding their approval, creating such a tension that he had to do a double-take before returning to his seat.
But Surjo went down later in the semifinals, smiling and saying “failed” into the microphone after hearing the telltale elimination bell for his attempt on the musical-related term “nachschlag.” He was then escorted to the bee’s comfort sofa, where eliminated spellers were welcomed with cookies, water and soothing words from bee staff and family.
One of the interesting new twists at this year’s bee: Some semifinalists got to see ESPN’s feature profiles of themselves on a big screen while they were airing on television. It might have seemed like a distraction, but it actually served to ease the tension. Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Fla., giggled as she watched herself enjoying Disney World — then calmed down and approached the microphone, where she correctly spelled “anaphylaxis.”
The bee continued to exhibit a sense of humor in the sentences used by pronouncer Jacques Bailly. He used a “set of prison bars for the name Bernie Madoff” in his example for “brachygraphy” and later made a reference to the “The Jeffersons,” a sitcom that went off the air some 10 years before the oldest of the spellers was born.
The week began with 275 spellers. A written test Tuesday and two oral rounds Wednesday reduced the field for the semifinals.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)