After a preliminary written test in which this year’s competitors were asked to spell words ranging from collateral to perruche, and answer vocabulary questions like “When people expatiate, they…”, all took the stage to spell aloud for the cameras. Round 2 was composed of words taken exclusively from Spell It, which is a word list comprising approximately 1150 words. Aside from a 450-word school list that changes every year, this list is the main list provided to spellers by Scripps, and it has not changed in years. As such, Round 2 was rather underwhelming; out of 285 spellers, only four were eliminated. Two other spellers voluntarily withdrew from the competition for undisclosed reasons, and it says something that this was more noteworthy; personally, I have never heard of a speller choosing not to participate at the national level.
Round 3, however, was quite a bit more challenging. Words were taken from a 600-word list given only to spellers in April, after all had won their qualifying bees. After perusing this list earlier this year, I felt it was significantly harder than last year, and 66 hapless spellers concurred…nearly twice as many eliminated in this round than in last year’s Round 3. Indeed, some parts of this round resembled blood baths, with as many as 7 out of 13 at one time falling to words like villeggiatura, calanque, and nyctipelagic. And perhaps the most tense moment came when JoJo Widi, from Laramie, WY, received the word gamboge, and stumbled over the middle, accidentally placing an a where the o belonged. He immediately corrected himself, but the resulting confusion required an instant replay, and JoJo was sadly eliminated.
Still, it seems that despite the pressure, spellers were still able to carve out welcome light-hearted moments. Audrey Frische, from Chattanooga, TN, for example, suddenly stuck her tongue out and made a funny face at the time clock video screen just to her side, then blurted out, much to the crowd’s amusement, “I’ve been dying to do that all day.” Evan Haley, from Odessa TX, received the word haberdasher, asked for a sentence, then wryly remarked, “Sounds like my life,” when the sentence described a man who could never find quite the right hat he wanted at the haberdasher. (He spelled the word right.) Oona Flood, from San Diego, was described in local media as the speller with pink hair when she won her qualifying bee; here in Washington, she had dyed it an almost business-like vivid blue, and her confidence was admirable as she made her way through geoponics and xiphias. Many spellers simply asked Dr. Bailly outright for a word they could spell; he obliged as often as he could, despite having his hands tied to the word list in front of him.
At the end of Round 3, things got serious. All of the spellers were called on stage for a quick photo-op, then Paul Loeffler, an announcer from ESPN (and a former National Spelling Bee competitor in 1990) revealed the top 49 semifinalists. After all spellers received a Surface 3 tablet from Windows, the semifinalists were whisked offstage and to a nearby room for their semifinals written test. Meanwhile, family members got to view the semifinals test via a live feed into a separate room. Due to some technical issues that delayed Round 3, the two hours normally scheduled for dinner and media appearances were cut in half, contributing to some tension during the test.
In format, the test was identical to the preliminaries test: 26 multiple choice questions, consisting of 12 spelling questions and 14 vocabulary questions. However, the questions were much more difficult; spelling tested the knowledge of words like elepaio,,Phalaenopsis, and Walpurgisnacht, and the vocabulary section tested whether competitors knew what a deltiologist collected (postcards), or what part of a house a mansard is (a roof). Competitors stumbled out of the room, humbled by the test’s difficulty, hoping for some reassurance that not all was lost, and trepidly awaiting the final day of spelling.
Thus ended the second day.