My adopted hometown Cleveland has a serious self-esteem problem despite the fact that I have found it to be a nice place to live and raise a family and have been very happy here. Of course, it has many real problems that it shares with other mid-sized cities in the northeast, such as the poor economy, the effects of the housing crisis, schools in trouble, and declining population coupled with rising unemployment.
But what really seems to stick in the craw of this sports-obsessed town is that it has not won a major national sporting championship since 1964, when it won the NFL trophy before it became the Super Bowl. The near misses since then have only added to the feeling that there is some curse on the town, perhaps as a result of their baseball team insisting on retaining the ghastly Chief Wahoo logo despite regular protests that it is a highly offensive caricature of Native Americans. It amazes me that some fans are so attached to that awful logo that any suggestion of removing it brings them out of the woodwork with angry letters to the newspapers..
Cleveland’s best shot at a major national title seemed to be an NBA championship with LeBron James, but their second serious try at it fell short again this year even before they reached the finals, and with James now a free agent and heavily recruited by other teams, the city is glum.
So it was with some pleasure that our local newspaper The Plain Dealer reported last Saturday that one of our own, 14-year old Anamika Veeramani, had won the 83rd the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship, after coming fifth the previous year. Her path to victory lay in her ability to by correctly spell “such tongue-twisters as nahcolite, a white mineral consisting of sodium bicarbonate; epiphysis, an end part of a long bone in higher vertebrates; and juvia, a Brazil nut.” Her final winning word was Stromuhr, which is apparently a tool that measures the speed of blood through an artery.
The paper has been covering her victory tour the whole week. While I am pleased for her and her family for her success, I must admit that the appeal of this contest completely eludes me. Spelling words, like naming state capitols, could be an amusing parlor game to while away a few minutes but how could such a contest ever have gripped the imagination of so many people that the event actually gets national TV coverage?
Over at Mother Jones Kevin Drum is equally puzzled at the popularity of this contest and in his investigation finds that the kinds of words that are thrown at the contestants these days are a far cry from those of the past. In 1930, for example, words that contestants stumbled over were blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, license, and primarily. As he says, these are words that nowadays “probably wouldn’t show up in the first round of a district competition, let alone in the final round of the nationals.” In fact, all the words that knocked out the students in the final round in 1930 were ones that any reasonably literate adult would be able to spell today. The list of winning words since 1925 provides a fascinating window into the evolution of difficulty. Even though I read quite a lot, since 1986 I had heard of only two or three of the winning words and never encountered the words that Anamika Veeramani spelled this year and would not get correct even a single one of them, except by sheer luck and guesswork.
Has the vocabulary of our teenagers actually got so good that now we need to test them with esoteric words that one is unlikely to ever use? One of Drum’s commenters, however, gave out the secret for this evolution.
Don’t be too impressed with modern young spelling champs. Back in the late 80′s when I was in junior high, I participated in the regional spelling bees from which winners went to the national bee (now televised on ESPN). I had the good fortune to qualify 3 years in a row for the regional contest for the greater Philadelphia area and learned the “game.”
The game was that you can officially be asked any word from some version of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So, it’s it’s impressive when a 12 year old kid spells a crazy word. However… they give all contestants a thin pamphlet of study words for practice. During my first year, my parents overheard that all words in the competition came from the pamphlet (I can confirm this from subsequent competitions). The pamphlet is thin enough that a studious competitor can study and memorize it within a few months. This is how the modern spelling feats are explained in the televised competitions.
So in order to draw viewers, the sponsors of the contest seem to have rigged it to create amazement at the ability of young people to spell words that even adults have never heard of.
I recall seeing the documentary Spellbound a few years ago, that tracks a group of children as they work their way through the competition. I was impressed at the deep dedication of the children and their families as they spent hours and hours and hours each day over weeks and months drilling on the words. I was also depressed that they were devoting so much of their time to such a useless activity.
I can understand the need for contests of intellectual skills to at least partially balance the emphasis on athletic competitions in schools. But there must be other intellectual contests that have more intrinsic value. Surely among intellectual skills, the ability to spell obscure words must rank near the bottom in usefulness? I can understand, for example, a Scrabble contest. That is a game where you need to be able to draw upon a vocabulary of both ordinary and obscure words but also use strategy and ingenuity in placing them. A spelling competition involving a given list of esoteric words seems so incredibly pointless.
The format of the spelling bee also seems unfair, since all contestants do not spell the same words and an unlucky contestant may get knocked out by chancing to get a tough word early. A game in which all the contestants write down the words they are asked to spell would be fairer but would not provide the visual drama that TV requires. Perhaps people like to see children sweat under pressure, the agony of getting it wrong and being bumped, and the relief of getting it right, all of which you can see in Spellbound. I felt really sorry for them.
The fact that the whole thing is aimed at TV ratings also explains the controversy that erupted at this year’s event when the organizers, in order to maintain the proper pacing of eliminations to fill their allotted TV time slot, invoked an obscure rule that seemed grossly unfair to the participants. Frankly, I do not understand the details of what the complicated controversy was all about and did not feel like spending a lot of time on it, but Shaquille O’Neal was involved, if you can imagine it.
There is one other thing that is puzzling. It strikes me, as a casual observer, that a lot of the students who reach the nationals are of Indian origin. In fact, 40 percent of the winners since 1985 seem to have ethnic Indian names. In addition, they seem by their names to be of South Indian ethnicity, in particular the Tamil community, which has a worldwide diaspora. What is that all about? Why is this particular group so attracted to this contest? Even though I am an ethnic Tamil, I have no idea as to the reason. Was there some memo that I did not get?
The whole thing strikes me as weird.
POST SCRIPT: Ricky Gervais on how and why he became an atheist
At the age of eight, it took him only an hour to figure out that there was no god.