Nothing ‘epideictic’ about the Spelling Bee test

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 30, 2013

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Hello. I’m Speller No. 282. And I’m not going to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
But thanks to the new vocabulary test, I might have been a contender.
This being my eighth year covering the bee for the Associated Press, and with the historic introduction of vocabulary to the annual competition, the bee allowed me an unprecedented chance to sit in the quiet computer room and take the same preliminary round test given to the 281 youngsters competing for this year’s top prize.
The quick verdict: I can’t spell, but I can define.
I took the test Tuesday, the same day as the rest of the spellers, with the promise that I wouldn’t reveal the contents until the results for everyone were announced Wednesday afternoon. Using a complicated formula, those scores are combined with Wednesday’s onstage rounds to determine the semifinalists for today.
I was escorted from the waiting room, where parents pass the anxious moments, and led to a large room with some 50 computers on long, rectangular tables. I typed in my log-in number — 282, of course — and put on a set of large, noise-cancelling headphones so I could hear the prerecorded spelling and vocabulary words as spoken by official bee pronouncer Jacques Bailly. A timer counted down the 45 minutes given to complete the test.
When I heard the first word, I thought I was done for.

The screen told me the definition, language of origin and used it in a sentence, but I didn’t have a clue about the word that means “designed primarily for rhetorical effect.” I clicked the button several times to listen to the word, trying to think of the clues I’ve learned listening to the spellers over the years. I typed: “epidyctic.”
Close, but close doesn’t count in spelling.
Fortunately, there were some I did know. “Chortle” and “duplicitous” and “romanticism” were no problem, but I added an “s” to “virucide,” went with an “s” instead of a “z” for “netizen” and didn’t put near enough vowels in “Ouagadougou.”
After 24 words, it was on to the vocabulary test, a radical change in the bee competition. The addition of vocabulary was announced only seven weeks ago, and spellers were unsure how to prepare for it. The bee made the change because it seemed a natural progression in its mission to encourage kids to broaden their knowledge of the language.
Yet this part seemed easier. There were four possible answers for each word, but I didn’t need multiple choice to know terms such as “acrimony,” “bibliomania” and “tranquil.” It soon became clear that there were only two or three really tough words, ones designed to separate the elite competitors from everyone else. I had to make educated guesses on “anechoic” (free from echoes and reverberation), “wolfsbane” (a type of plant) and “epicure” (a person with discriminating taste for food).
After those 24 words, I had two more vocabulary words worth an extra three points each: “flamboyant” and “equipoise” (a word related to balance).
The test was done, and I anxiously awaited my score. I knew that only 12 of the 24 words in the first two parts of the test would count toward my tally, but I didn’t know which ones until my results came back.
As it turned out, I got six out of 12 in spelling and a perfect 12 out of 12 in vocabulary. The only vocabulary word I missed was “wolfsbane,” but fortunately it wasn’t among the 12 that counted. I also nailed both of the three-point words, so my final score was 24 out of 30.
Not bad, but it wouldn’t be enough to advance to the semifinals. I didn’t get a chance to test my nerves under the bright lights on Wednesday, but my score would have been two points shy of the qualifying mark.
So it was back to my seat on press row, having confirmed what I’ve known all along: These kids are smart.