The strange appeal of the Spelling Bee


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.

(Thanks to Machine Like Us.)

Comments

  1. Steven Janowiecki says

    Hi Mano,

    I regularly read your words here, but haven’t commented before. I took a Sages class with you about the history/progress/meaning of science, and it was one of the most important classes I’ve ever had.

    You remark that the spelling bee is one of the few examples of intellectual contests in the public sphere, and wish there could be more. However, I think the reason there are more sport-related contests than intellectual is because of the difference in the intentions and purpose of the subjects. Popular sport contests always involve multiple people working together (a few track and field events may be an exception). Most of the intellectual contests that come to mind (spelling, trivia, fact recall, …?) are focused on individuals. A good sports contestant is one who works well on a team, which may have the effect of making the viewers feel connected, too. A good intellectual contestant, on the shows I have in mind, is always a solo player when it comes right down to it. This is not really representative of true intellectual pursuits, which are very often collaborative and discussion-based, but that sort of thing just doesn’t seem to be popular for audiences to watch. No matter though, it suits me just fine.

    Steven

  2. sparrow says

    I heard that this is a movement to do a Grammar Bee on the national level.

    Also, Mano do you think Notre Dame should get read of the ‘fighting Irish’ moniker? After all, that stereotypes Irish people.

    Or how about the West Virginia Mountaineers? Their logo features a backwoods guy carrying a shotgun and dressed out in fur. Doesn’t this further the ‘back woods’ reputation of WVa?

    Providence has the Friars. Surely men of the robe don’t want to me associated with childish competitive games.

    Not only Friars, but sports are full of Saints, Paladins, Demons, and Knights.

    Is it not the name but the fact that some group finds a particular name or image disrespectful?

    If that’s the case I’d argue that in reality it is a very vocal few who actually protest the use of Native American names and images in sports.

    In 2005 Sports Illustrated did a poll and 75% of Native Americans were not offended by the name ‘Redskins’ when used in a sports team name.

    In the early 1990s McGill university “consulted with the Chief of the First Nations in Canada and with an Aboriginal team member, both were fine with the use of the mascot and actually wrote letters attesting to their support.”

    The team name was the Redmen.

  3. says

    Hi Steven,

    Nice to hear from you. I agree that the team versus individual distinction is important. But why has the individual event like the spelling bee grabbed such a hold on people? Is it the sudden death format that is the attraction, like in game shows like
    “Who wants to be a millionaire?”

  4. Robert Allen says

    A mascot is a stereotype, by definition and by design. Races, cultures, and countries are defined, necessarily, by stereotypes. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless you are using a stereotype to insult people. But the point of a mascot is to be a praiseworthy representation of a team, not to be an accurate depiction of anything. If it was accurate, it wouldn’t be a mascot! All the Native American themed mascots are based on the brave warrior stereotype. Those teams thought a Native American would be the best way to represent courage and strength. How is that insulting? I think some people are just hyper-sensitive and looking for reasons to take offense.

  5. Jared A says

    Are people really still defending Chief Wahoo? There’s a difference between distilling symbols a people associate with themselves and symbols that a outsiders use to stigmatize them. Compare the Utah Utes where the logo is two feathers around a U, and the mascot is a red tailed hawk (both symbols are actually meaningful to the Ute tribe) to “Chief Wahoo”, who has two main features – he’s “red” and he’s an “Indian”. Is the difference really that difficult to see?

    This isn’t to say that there is never a controversy around the Ute mascot, either, but the issues are more nuance.

  6. Robert Allen says

    Jared,
    You didn’t really address my points. Chief Wahoo’s main features are ones a team can rally behind: courage and fierceness (or skill or whatever). If Native Americans had been stereotyped as lazy and weak, they wouldn’t be used as mascots, no matter how red or “Indian” they were. So those are obviously incidental characteristics. There’s a reason teams don’t choose a hardworking white settler with a wife and kids as their mascot: the associated stereotypes are not admirable in a sports team.

    No one is claiming to be distilling symbols a people associate with themselves. The whole point is to use a positive stereotype that is known to the team and to the fans. The keyword there is “positive.”

    If we used your logic, where does it end? How many people have to claim they are offended by a mascot before you think it should be banned? One tribe? What about a Crusader mascot? That might be offensive to some Christians, as would an Angel mascot. Even animal Mascots might be offensive to some: a Stallion mascot might offend horse-lovers who understand that it’s not an accurate representation of the stallions they know and love, etc. etc.

    Oh, I know the perfect mascot: Mohammad with a bomb in his turban!

  7. Jared A says

    Robert,

    I didn’t address any of your points because I wasn’t attempting to. My comment wasn’t a rebuttal, it was an observation.

    Also, my logic doesn’t lead to any of the things you suggest it does for a similar reason. I never said we should ban any mascots. Why do you jump to someone saying something is tasteless to saying it should be banned?

    I don’t really care how offensive mascots are, I’m not advocating banning them. However, if you defend an obnoxious mascot you can expect to spend a lot of time protecting it from people rightly pointing out how stupid and tasteless it is.

    And that’s what I said. It seems strange to me that people would really WANT to defend that particular logo.

  8. says

    I agree with Jared. Neither he nor I is asking that these stereotypical logos and mascots be banned or even for some general rules to be established for them.

    It is a question of taste and as such has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Clearly some teams have changed their logos when they realized that they were offensive.

    The leering Chief Wahoo logo strikes me as so crude and tacky that I cannot understand why people are so attached to it. Surely they would prefer a more dignified or pleasant symbol for their team?

  9. says

    It’s quite surprising to know that spelling bee contests are exploited to generate TV following. What about the real issue of learning from this contest? Thanks for this revealing blog post.

  10. says

    I wonder how much ESPN makes off of the spelling bee. How much do the kids make? probably 0.. Its a win win situation for ESPN.. well and the BEE winner

  11. Mary Ann says

    Hi Mano,

    I would disagree with you that a Spelling Bee lacks intrinsic value. I watched a bit of it on ESPN. The commentator often walked the audience through the process the contestant was using to analyse a word when presented with a challenging one. Obviously, those contestants have a great understanding of etymology. Memorization may be part of it, but I think the understanding of word origins is just as important as the memorization. By being able to put the clues together on the definition, language origin and context, these kids work it out. I think the world continues to need great etymologists. As someone who has always enjoyed the study of language and words, I admire the skill these kids have.

    I would agree that the competition might need a little more organization, though. Why is there such an age range of 8 to 15? Can an 8 year old truly compete fairly with a 15 year old?

  12. says

    Mary Ann,

    I understand that the spellers look into various aspects of the words in order to be better able to spell them, but once the dust settles, they are still merely being asked to spell words and are not asked the really interesting things about etymology. A person with a good memory could ignore all that other stuff and still succeed.

  13. Shruti says

    To give you perspective, Anamika (who is a close family friend) studied for YEARS, hours and hours every day, 8 hours a day in the summer, to get to this point. I mean, I see your point about it being an ultimately uninteresting activity, but no more so than any other competition. Are there any contrived competitions (sports or otherwise) that seem interesting to you? Let her have her 15 minutes of fame; she’s worked hard for it.

  14. says

    I am also puzzled by the appeal the Spelling Bee has for many students (and their parents!)Personally, I can’t see the point in learning how to spell obscure words one will never use – especially in the age of the spellchecker.
    My own children have all participated in the Spelling Bee – they are attracted by all contests – but I discourage them from spending time in preparation for it. I far prefer the many contests that test useful knowledge or encourage thinking skills.

  15. Sam says

    Hi. I read your excellent journal entry and wanted to comment. Here’s an excerpt from what you wrote:

    “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.”

    OK, speaking from experience, I can tell you that this secret is NOT true–at least not in all cases. I participated in the spelling-bee finals of my state for 3 years in a row in the early ’80s. Even though our state had about 6 million people, they sent only ONE competitor to the national finals (which was completely nuts). By contrast, a neighboring state with only about 2-3 million people sent about *6* people to the finals. Totally inconsistent.

    Anyway, to get back on topic: We had 10 competitors each year at our state spelling bee, one from each Congressional district. Starting in the 6th grade, I represented my district for three consecutive years. In the district spelling bee, all of the words came out of the booklet “Words of the Champions,” which had about 3,000 words in it. I worked very hard and learned all the words in the booklet. (But it was certainly not an easy feat. Very few kids would end up doing this. Many of the words were extremely difficult. It took a lot of time and practice to learn all those words. Instead of months, it could take years.) There were 3 types of words in the booklet: “first round,” “intermediate,” and “final.” The “final” words were the hardest. Anyway, each year in my district bee, which represented over 25 different counties, the words never went past the “intermediate” category. So, winning the district was never really that difficult for me, because I had studied the whole booklet of 3,000 words with gusto.

    Unfortunately, the state spelling bee was another story. The word list for the state bee was rather capricious. If they had stuck to only the words in the booklet, I think they could’ve eventually crowned a winner. It might have taken 300-400 words or more, but eventually a winner would have emerged IMO. Unfortunately, the state bee often departed from the booklet and chose these obscure words from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. When that happens, it becomes all about luck. Ironically enough, I always ended up getting the first word taken from the dictionary instead of the booklet each year!! When I was in sixth grade, after many rounds, the competition was narrowed down to a 7th-grade girl and me. We had a spell-off for quite some time. Then I got the first word from outside the booklet. I asked for extra pronunciations, so they looked it up in the dictionary. Then they found out that they had misspelled the word!!! Unbelievable. So they gave me another word from outside the booklet instead. I had never heard of it, but got it right. Then the girl got hers right. They gave me another word I hadn’t heard, but miraculously I got it right too. The girl got hers as well. Then on my third word from outside the booklet, I stumbled. The girl had to spell the same word, and she picked up on my misspelling and got it right. Then she got a pretty easy word to win the title. It was heartbreaking. The ironic thing was that when she went to the National Spelling Bee, this girl missed an easy word from the “intermediate” category in the booklet and got bounced out in the first round!!! So apparently she didn’t know all the words in that booklet. Why couldn’t she have received that word in our state spelling bee??? LOL. I knew the words in the book like the back of my hand, because I had worked really hard.

    Then in seventh grade, something similar happened, except the state bee went out of the booklet even earlier than expected. There were about 6 or 7 of us still standing, and they inexplicably starting using random words from the dictionary. Again, I got the first word from outside the booklet. I had never heard it before but ended up getting it right. Unfortunately, most of the others weren’t so lucky. I was given a second word from outside the booklet too, and I got that right as well, because somewhere along the line I had seen it in my studies (I sometimes studied the dictionary too). Eventually everyone was eliminated but an eighth-grade girl and me. We were then given at least a dozen words from outside the booklet. There were some words that we both misspelled, some that she spelled right, and some that I spelled right. Then I got a very difficult German word that I had never heard of. I guessed and almost got it right, missing only one letter. The girl had to spell it too, and since I had practically spelled it for her, she just added one letter and got it right. Then her next word–get this–CAME FROM THE BOOKLET. UNBELIEVABLE. So, she just got an easy word from the booklet, spelled it right, and became the state spelling champion. Another heartbreak for me.

    In my eighth-grade year, I thought that it might finally be the year that I would win the state bee. All the words came from the booklet at first, and eventually we were narrowed down to three. We went through more words from the booklet, but there were still three of us. (One of the girls–the eventual winner–really seemed to struggle on a lot of her words, however.) Then they jumped out of the booklet, Again, I got the first word from outside the booklet. (Why did that always happen to me???? LOL.) I had never heard of it before. It was very difficult, and I misspelled it. That eliminated me, unfortunately. Ouch. The very next word, which was also outside the booklet, was as easy as pie: “cornucopia.” The girl who received that spelled it easily. It’s ironic that the first word from outside the booklet was a horrific one (which I received), but then the next word an easy one. Completely ridiculous. Anyway, that left two girls. They gave them over a dozen words from outside the booklet, and they misspelled every one of them!!! (Except I think one of the girls might have gotten one right, but that’s it.) Then they jumped back in the booklet!!! UGH!!!! The girls spelled words in the booklet for about 5-6 rounds, until one of them missed. Then the other girl easily spelled the missed word, as well as another word from the booklet, to win the title. (The girl who won never spelled a single one of her words right that came from outside the booklet.) Another heartbreak for me.

    To make a long story short, for our state spelling bee, there was no magic secret to win the bee (at least the years that I was in it). If all you had to do was to know all the words in the booklet, I would have won it 3 times in a row. But they start picking these crazy words from the dictionary, and it becomes mostly luck at that point. So, once that happens, the person who ends up winning is usually the luckiest.

    Anyway, for me, the spelling bee was a heartbreaking experience. For three years in a row, I got so close to going to the National Spelling Bee, but some bad luck got in the way each time. Looking back, I consider the spelling bee to be a terrible format. It feels like I wasted so much time preparing for a competition that was largely luck-based. I really don’t think the best speller usually wins. I think the spelling bee should be changed as follows:

    1) Give everyone the same words and make it a written test. Start off with 100 words. If there’s a tie, keep doing more rounds of 50 written words each. That would give you the best speller probably at least 90% of the time and greatly minimize the role of luck.

    2) A speller should not be eliminated because of a missed word. The speller’s *total* score should be the deciding factor.

    3) If the organizers decide to use words from outside the booklet, they should pick words that the spellers would have a reasonable chance of encountering in real life, such as “ukulele” or “rhinoceros” or “onomatopoeia,” not these crazy words that no one has ever heard of. Otherwise, whether you spell the word correctly is based mostly on luck.

    Anyway, I feel that if the format had been such that everyone had to spell the same words, I would have won the state spelling bee at least once. But as it was, luck ended up being the biggest factor, and our state only sent one contestant to the National Spelling Bee to boot (if I had lived in a neighboring state that sent several contestants, qualifying would have probably been pretty easy). What’s also ironic is that I heard that some of the state spelling bees in the years both before and after I participated in them never used words from outside the booklet even once!! Ouch again. Suffice it to say that the spelling bee brings back many painful memories for me. :( Anyway, the moral of the story is that whenever you see a spelling-bee winner in the newspaper or on TV, don’t automatically assume that this person was the best speller in the competition, because luck often plays a huge role. And if you have kids and really care about them, please encourage them not to waste their time on the spelling bee. ;)

    OK, thanks for giving me the opportunity to rant, Mano! That was a bit cathartic–I’m feelin’ better now!!! LOL.

  16. says

    Sam,

    Thanks a lot for this insider’s view. I agree with your suggestions for improvement. especially with the technology that’s available, the role of luck could be easily minimized.

    But I think that the organizers are not really seeking the best spellers but are going for the drama, to watch people sweat, and not caring that this can be a real ordeal for young children.

    It is one thing for adults on quiz shows to be willing to undergo this, but I don’t like it being done on children.

  17. Sam says

    Thanks a lot for this insider’s view.

    You’re welcome, Mano.

    I agree with your suggestions for improvement. especially with the technology that’s available, the role of luck could be easily minimized.

    Exactly. There are a lot of effective things that could be done using today’s technology, if only the organizers cared enough.

    But I think that the organizers are not really seeking the best spellers but are going for the drama, to watch people sweat, and not caring that this can be a real ordeal for young children.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. In fact, when I was in the ninth grade (and thus no longer eligible for the spelling bee), I sent the sponsoring organization in our state a letter describing some of my experiences. I said that I thought the organizers should be more concerned with finding the best speller than entertaining an audience, and therefore should use a written format. They responded to my letter and were polite–they even said that my recommendation was a good one and that they would consider it for the future. But of course they never did anything. LOL.

    And besides the lack of fairness, it’s embarrassing to hear the infamous “ding” after you miss a word. You feel humiliated in front of everyone. You may well remember that word for the rest of your life. In addition, I feel that spelling bees emphasize perfectionism (with its resulting obsessive-compulsive behavior) and teach kids that it’s bad to make a mistake, because making a mistake in a spelling bee is fatal (unless there are only two of you left, in which case it may or may not be). If you had a written test and did not win, that might be disappointing, but probably not humiliating. And it’s unlikely that you would focus on a single word for the reason that you didn’t win, because most likely everyone would have missed at least several words.

    In fact, I remember that, during the seventh grade, I was afraid to read the book Flowers for Algernon, because it features a lot of misspellings by the main character Charlie. I thought that reading it might negatively affect my spelling ability and thus hurt my chances in the spelling bee. That’s the kind of obsessive-compulsive thinking that the spelling bee fosters IMO. :)

    Can you imagine a golf tournament in which each player was assigned a different hole, and no hole was ever used more than once? And then eliminating a golfer if he or she did poorly on any particular hole? I doubt Tiger Woods would have won nearly as many tournaments that way. ;) But that’s really the way the spelling bee is in a nutshell.

    It is one thing for adults on quiz shows to be willing to undergo this, but I don’t like it being done on children.

    Thank you for saying that. I feel as if the spelling bee kind of chews kids up and spits them out, with little regard for their feelings. So many adults seem entranced by the spelling bee, and sometimes I would almost like to shake them and say, “Please wake up!” Maybe it’s a good thing that I never got to go to the National Spelling Bee. If I had, maybe I would have continued to adore the spelling bee and never have woken up to the fact that it’s a seriously flawed system. Coleridge’s phrase, “A sadder and a wiser man,” comes to mind.

    I also think it’s a shame that kids such as last year’s national winner sometimes studied as long as 8 hours a day in the summer! I worked hard but enjoyed myself too. At least my parents didn’t push me. And I rarely studied spelling in the summer. On some weekends, I might have studied a couple of hours a day (if even that) during the school year, but having to study for 8 hours a day sounds like pure torture (and abuse) to me. I really don’t think that’s healthy.

    It’s kind of funny–most of the year, I rarely think about the spelling bee. But in the springtime, there are articles on the Web and in the local paper about spelling bees, and that often brings back some painful reminders. LOL.

    Anyway, thanks for devoting an entry to this topic, Mano. I hope that more people will see the spelling bee with discernment and objectivity, as you obviously do. The most important thing should be fairness and the welfare of the kids, not the perpetuation of some mindless competitive format.

  18. says

    Mano —
    I agree. Being able to spell obscure words from a slim pamphlet of ‘contest’ words seems like a waste of time. The two things it does provide, however, are: 1) the contestants’ 15 minutes of fame, and 2) the audience for the TV adveritsers’ products. And not everybody can like the same things. So . . . there you go.

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