OXON HILL, Maryland — An impressive field of 283 young spellers was narrowed to 49 semifinalists during Wednesday's preliminary rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The remaining spellers will compete on Thursday for more than $37,000 in cash and prizes.
Among the semifinalists: Gokul Venkatachalam of Chesterfield, Missouri, who finished third last year. Gokul, a matter-of-fact speller who shows little emotion onstage, was one of three who got perfect scores on the preliminary spelling and vocabulary test.
Also advancing to the semifinals were Vanya Shivashankar, a five-time participant and the younger sister of the 2009 champion; Srinath Mahankali, the younger brother of the 2013 winner; and Jairam Hathwar, whose older brother was one of last year's co-champions.
Here are some memorable moments from the preliminary rounds:
During the first preliminary round Wednesday morning, 283 kids spelled words — and 279 spelled correctly. The words included "fidelity," ''flamboyant," ''mirage," ''llama" and "analysis."
The words for the first onstage round — technically Round 2 of the bee; Round 1 is a written test — are taken from a list of about 600 words that's also used in school and regional-level bees. That gives participants ample opportunity to study and memorize.
"We like the opportunity to give every speller the chance to shine onstage," said Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director. "I think what happened this morning is terrific."
Round three words are slightly tougher, and spellers have less time to master them — they are given the list after winning their regional bees.
Jacob Williamson, a popular former speller who finished in seventh place last year and is back this year as a spectator, thinks that's where the national bee should start.
"Round 2 has to go. It's pointless," he said. "I'd make the Round 3 list twice as big and use it for both rounds."
WHAT'S OLD IS NEW
Many spellers pretend to write words down before they spell them aloud. Nate Britton, 14, of Macomb, Michigan, had a different technique: He stepped away from the microphone, covered his hands with his mouth and silently rehearsed the word.
Nate picked up the trick by reading a book about the bee. He learned that Henry Feldman, who won in 1960, did the same thing.
"I don't want to spell the word out with the wrong letters. I say it to myself before. I basically repeat what I say before," Nick said. "This is my last bee, so it's very important. I just do it as a precaution."
The approach was successful, at least on Wednesday. Nate made the semifinals.
Sporting a gray sweater vest over a purple T-shirt, Evan Hailey, 12, of Odessa, Texas, was given the word "haberdasher." He clearly knew it, but he asked pronouncer Jacques Bailly to use it in a sentence anyway.
"Yet another upscale haberdasher has opened a shop on Brighton Street, but Kumar still can't find one of those hats Pharrell wears," Bailly said.
"That describes my life," Evan replied.
Emily Alldrin, 13, of Palocedro, California, had a front-row seat among the spellers onstage for the preliminary rounds, and even when her fellow competitors didn't show much emotion, she did.
Alldrin applauded vigorously for every speller. She started a line of high-fives for the ones who misspelled words. And she reacted to the words given to other kids by taking deep breaths, pursing her lips and sticking out her tongue.
"I really want everybody else to do well," she said. "I want to make them feel good about how they did."
PRONOUNCER'S DAY JOB
Pronouncer Jacques Bailly is the face of the National Spelling Bee. But the day job for the man the kids refer to as "Dr. Bailly" is quite different: He's an associate professor of classics at the University of Vermont.
"They complement each other perfectly," Bailly said. "The reason why we can have a spelling bee is because English has words from Greek, Latin, French and Old English. Those are four systems of spelling that are present in English, interfering with each other. ... The Greek and Latin, that's what I teach. I teach etymology, and that's essentially teaching the meaning of those words in the spelling bee."
Bailly is tenured and says he'll probably stay at Vermont forever. He also has no plans to give up his role with the bee.
"When I got the job at UVM, I already had this, and I told them this is something I intend to keep doing as long as Scripps will have me," he said.
REPEAT THAT, PLEASE
Every year, spellers try to trip up Bailly by asking him if he'll just go ahead and spell the word for them. That hasn't worked yet, but Sophia Han of Tianjin, China, came up with a novel question that Bailly could answer.
Given the word "vermicide," she asked: "Could you repeat that word five times in a row, Dr. Bailly?"
Bailly complied, and Sophia spelled it right.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Matthew Ross of Orleans, Indiana, got an easy word in Round 2: "plateau." So he did Bailly's job for him.
"Plateau, as in from French?" he asked. "Like a raised area of land?"
Bailly confirmed that Matthew had the word origin and definition right before Matthew spelled the word.
"I went through all the trouble to learn the definitions," he said afterward. "I might as well recite them."
Nick Sarji of Kailua, Hawaii, represented his home state with a teal-and-black Hawaiian shirt. But he wasn't up there for long. His word in Round 2 was "xylophone," and he spelled it without bothering to confirm the definition or etymology.
He did the same thing when he got "tenaillon" in the next round.
"I didn't want to ask for every possible question because I knew the word," 12-year-old Nick said. "That's kind of boring. I just wanted to get it over with."
Nick's trip to the Washington suburbs from Hawaii was not so smooth. His flight took him from Seattle to Atlanta to Baltimore, and the 20-hour odyssey ended with a bumpy shuttle ride. He's also had to adjust to a six-hour time difference.
"I'm tired, but I've kind of adapted," he said. On his first night in Maryland, he said, "I couldn't go to sleep until like 3 in the morning."
The microphone that spellers use can be bent, but it can't be raised or lowered. With spellers ranging in age from 9 to 15 and separated by roughly 2 feet in height, that's made for some awkward moments.
Taller spellers were forced to bend their knees or bend at the waist, and many ended up looking at the floor as they spelled. A few younger spellers appeared to be staring at the ceiling.
The closest encounter with the microphone belonged to 10-year-old Kasey Torres of San Angelo, Texas. While pretending to write the word "octonocular," he lost his bearings and bumped into the microphone with his forehead. After a fit of giggles, he recovered to spell it right.
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