Concentrate. 615,000 words in the Oxford English dictionary and you need only one. A flash from the New York Times photographer captures your confused face as you wrestle with half remembered pneumonic devices. This is serious, the flash intones, as if the paper of record need remind you, Think back to your training. Your palms moisten. This is your final stand, your one chance, this is your Waterloo, your 8 mile.
From the audience the tension is palpable. Not since Williamsburg dropped it’s ‘H’ has spelling caused such excitement. Spelling’s resurgence is surprising, not least of all stemming from an education system seemingly obsessed with calling reading, writing and arithmetic the three R’s. Even now felled contestants in last night’s Williamsburg Spelling Bee can be heard blaming their iPhone’s auto-correct feature, admonishing themselves for the neglected ‘I before E’ in zwieback (twice baked bread), or finding solace in the one spelling they can be certain of: P-B-R.
Aside from the18 combatants, in Pete’s Candy Store last night it was just as much an occasion for laughter as learning, for polysemous homonyms as good-natured heckling. We cower behind our drunkenness as our learned comrades sally forth. The WSB is coming towards it’s fifth anniversary and she knows no boundaries, no borders contain her, she skips across continents, through history, through time. Before the evening ends we encounter middle Dutch, old Norse, Greek, Latin and Danish; we are introduced to Syssel, a district in Iceland, Akarpos, a greek word for not baring fruit, Borborygmus, the sound gas makes in your bowels, but it is medical terminology that concerns our contestant Wilson now.
“Pros’õ-pag-nõ’sé-â is an inability to recognize familiar faces.”
Wilson steadies himself. All the air in the room thins. He plays the word over and over in his mind, it’s undulating consonants like some heinous mobius strip. The crowd chatter stops.
Hosts comedian Jennnifer Dziura and founder BobbyBlue let him hang a few beats.
“That answer is…”
Beneath Wilson’s unlikely lexiocgrapher uniform of trucker cap and wrestling tee, it is clear this moment is important. He distractedly sips at his beer, avoiding any and all eye contact. Another beat. Our hosts share a conspiratorial look; Wilson’s pupils fix and dilate. We long for the affirmation of BobbyBlue’s bell, for certainty that Wilson will continue forward to victory.
When the verdict arrives, it is bellowed in chorus:
We, the audience cheer, unaware as it happens that this word has propelled Wilson to victory over second placed David and third placed John, unaware that he will continue to the next round, $25 gift certificate in hand, cap on head, confidence refreshed.
Those unperturbed by time travelling, transnational linguistics can compete every other Monday at Pete’s Candy Store until the December 6 final or test yourself on Jennifer’s word of the day blog.
Do you have what it takes?
–by Daniel Gill