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The Super Bowl of Spelling

A primer on the brutal and captivating Scripps Howard Spelling Bee

To some, spelling may seem like a useless, old-fashioned skill, like churning butter or exorcising demons. But for people with a certain strain of the word-geek virus, the sporting event of the year is coming up: The Scripps Howard Spelling Bee, which dates back to 1925 and is-as memorably described by's Bill Simmons-"a spectacle that ranks alongside the Adult Video News Awards and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show as the most secretly captivating telecast on TV." That secret has been out for a while now, judging from movies like 2002's Spellbound and the coverage on ESPN and ABC (which telecasts the finals May 28).As the bee rules state emphatically, participants have to be under 16 and not yet in high school. To be older, or further along in school, would be the spelling equivalent of taking performance-enhancing drugs. As for the bee itself, 293 kids (51 percent of them boys) made it to nationals this year, and they'll start with a written test before entering the octagon-er, the stage-for rounds two and three today on ESPN. Based on these combined scores, 50 or fewer students will proceed to the finals, with the winner earning $30,000, which is spelled K-A-C-H-I-N-G.For true trivia junkies and spelling mavens, past winners and their winning words can be found on the bee's website. The very first winner was Frank Neuhauser, who finished off the competition with gladiolus (a type of plant) in 1925. Other winning terms have included common words such as fracas, knack, therapy, Chihuahua, luge, and deteriorating, as well as obscurities like eudaemonic, odontalgia, and vivisepulture-my longtime companion the Oxford English Dictionary says they mean "conducive to happiness," a toothache, and "burying alive," which has never been considered polite.I was curious to look up the history of the term spelling bee itself. Could there be other kinds of bees, like a math bee, a crocheting bee, or a mother-joke bee? Actually, there could be. The OED says this use of bee is an "allusion to the social character of the insect" meaning some "meeting of neighbours to unite their labors for the benefit of one of their number." This led to coinages such as apple-bee, husking-bee, and quilting-bee, before the word broadened further in the form of spelling bee. So if you see a spelling bee logo with a bee and think that's ridiculous, well, not really. Buzzing bees truly are the inspiration for spelling bees.The national bee's popularity has built on ESPN coverage since 1994, the surprising spelling-bee movie genre, and ABC coverage since 2006. One reason for the popularity of the national bee must be that we can all relate. Not many people can throw like Peyton Manning, dunk like Dwight Howard, or hurt people like Randy Couture, but we can all spell a tough word once in awhile, and most people have at least been in a spelling bee at some point.The bee is also brimming with tension. I haven't seen the fictional spelling bee movie Akeelah and the Bee, but I rewatched Spellbound this week, and was mesmerized right from the opening shot, as a talkative speller hems, haws, frets, questions, grimaces, and appears to undergo a full-blown aneurysm while trying to spell a word. Focusing on eight kids who made nationals in 1999, this movie really captured the horrifying vulnerability of the event: a speller is all alone, with no teammates or even a golf club to swing-it's code-4 nakedness and much of it is televised. The awkwardness of a bee can match The Office in the cringe department any day. Though some parents are terrifying, the most soul-crushing aspect of the event is The Bell of Doom, which dings a misspelling. The look of relief on an unsure speller who mercifully doesn't hear that bell is amazing… and it tells you all you need to know about their bell-filled nightmares.Who will be the LeBron James of spellers this year? I have no idea, but if I were a gambling man, I'd lay money on one of the returning spellers. Many are back for the second or third time, while four spellers are on-board for their fourth go-round: Keiko S. Bridwell, Josephine Kao, Kavya Shivashankar, and Vaibhav S. Vavilala. Just as LeBron himself didn't win NBA MVP till his sixth season, one of these veteran spellers may be the one to survive this year without ever hearing that unbearable bell.My own experience in a spelling bee was not especially memorable-I think it was in seventh grade, with about 50 kids and something less than 30 grand at stake-but a few details did stick permanently in my brain. I remember being pleased to make the final 15, ecstatic that a blowhard who vowed victory bit the dust even earlier, and both happy and then mortified that my best friend made it to the final two, only to be defeated by a girl, which felt like a cootie-coated war crime at the time. Hey, at least my buddy didn't lose live on ABC-which I'll be glued to.

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