I simply do not understand the attraction of the Scripps Spelling Bee competition. It now results in young people spending an extraordinary amount of time memorizing the spelling of words so esoteric that one is never likely to use or hear them except in highly technical contexts. In its early years the winning words were blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, license, and primarily. In recent years they were appoggiatura, Ursprache, serrefine, guerdon, Laodicean, stromuhr, cymotrichous, guetapens, knaidel, stichomythia, and feuilleton. (See here and here for my earlier posts and in particular read the comments to those posts by readers who added interesting information and insights.)
The fact that ethnic South Indians have consistently dominated this competition in recent years is another odd feature of this competition and has resulted in some ugly reactions.
The organizers face the problem that these young students are becoming ever more adept at the spelling of the increasingly harder words that are thrown at them, probably by spending yet more time memorizing, resulting in more contests ending in ties because the students are simply not messing up. Rather than recognizing that there is a fundamental problem with their model that could be addressed in other ways, they have decided to double down and make the words even more esoteric, thus causing more young people (and their families) to waste even more time learning things that have hardly any value in modern society.
At what point will parents decide that this is not worth it and walk away from the competition? It is not the wasting of time that is at issue. Who among us doesn’t waste time on some hobby? It is the combination of intense pressure on the contestants who are after all just children, the enormous time spent on it, and that the skill itself is pretty much useless and developing it has hardly any beneficial side-effects. But my biggest complaint is that the organizers of the competition are not really seeking the best spellers because that can be done in much better ways. They are going for the drama of watching people sweat in front of a national audience, 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 to children.
On the lighter side, here is one student who was asked to spell the word ‘negus’. He clearly had not heard the word before and started stalling for time. I was terrified (and I think he was too) that he would think he was being asked for the homophone that is slang for the dreaded n-word.