This Saturday, March 11th, was the 2017 Denver Post Spelling Bee. This is the spelling bee that would cover all of Colorado. However, Boulder County holds its own spelling bee as well, so Colorado gets two representatives at the Scripps National Spelling Bee instead of just one. I consider this progress. When I first went to the national bee in 1987, I represented all of Colorado…and all of Wyoming. It sounded impressive, but there just wasn’t a sponsor in Wyoming at the time. But by 1989, Wyoming finally had its own sponsor, so I represented “only” Colorado. It was still a big deal, competing in a very difficult bee of roughly 250 students.

Anyway, back to the story. The Denver Post bee has grown to about 270-280 students. The field gets whittled down to no more than 40 spellers after a written test consisting of 30 spelling questions and 15 vocabulary questions. This year, the written test produced a relatively small field of 33 students. Nine rounds of words from Spell It (a list of approximately 1150 words all spellers have access to year-round, and which hasn’t changed since about 2009) whittled the field down to 21 students. Then the bee got interesting as the list went to the dictionary and away from Spell It.

Mercifully, the bee became relatively easier, with words like inflate and lullaby starting off round 10. And as the words grew more difficult with each successive round, the spellers dropped, only a few at a time, in an impressive show of just how fair and smoothly a bee can proceed. By round 15, only 9 spellers remained, at which point eventual third-placer Edwin Wojcik asked for a break. Good timing. Round 16 ended up being the knockout round, with 6 of the 9 remaining spellers cast out by words like pavonine and winceyette. Five quick rounds later, eighth-grader Faith Baca hoisted the trophy, mastering splanchnology and finally rhabdoid for the win. It was, all in all, a great bee, well-run, and I feel the best speller truly did win and earned her place to compete among the best spellers in the nation in May.

So what went through this coach’s head as the latter part of the bee proceeded? I’m glad you asked.

Unfamiliar words. Even after 42 years on this planet, many of them spent poring over the dictionary and looking at word lists ad infinitum, I still love seeing the random unfamiliar word…either I don’t quite recognize it, or I just haven’t ever seen it before. This year, parvule was the only word I didn’t recognize, but it’s a great word with a straightforward definition. The motto “keep it simple for success” really applies to spelling this word correctly.

Geographical words. A word to wise spellers: study your geography too! Though not among the most difficult words given, Wales and Sicily found their way into the latter section of the bee this year. And after Liechtenstein and Stockholm were seen at the national bee in 2016, this charge is even more applicable.

Harry Potter fans may have an edge. Why? Because nearly 10 years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published, words from J.K. Rowling’s literary phenomenon still appear in spelling bees. I’m not sure where else one would find the word dittany except for lists of herbs. But the word – and the herb, given prominent magical healing powers in this, the final Harry Potter book – found its way into the bee this year. And unfortunately, it was missed. J.K. Rowling is an impressive writer, and she has a brilliant command of the English language – not to mention its fundamental Greek and Latin roots, so her books are a great source of words. (Plus, look closely at the names of characters, spells, and even potions. They are virtually self-defining if you explore their roots.)
And a word to the wise here: the word panel has long tipped its hand and revealed that they seldom go to the dictionary itself for words. They often go many other places…current publications, classic and popular novels and books, even shopping catalogs. I even suspect they may get words from television shows; the words dowager, Plantagenet, and netsuke featured in the acclaimed Anglophile series Downton Abbey (2010-2015), have appeared in recent years in bee lists. (I could always be wrong, but especially with the word dowager, it seemed too coincidental for there not to be a link.) And when the bee requires it (as during the national finals), they often go to highly specialized textbooks. So it behooves spellers – and their parents! – to stay abreast of writings in popular culture.

Serendipity! No, not the word. The occurrence. A few months ago, I found the word rosalia in the dictionary. It is defined as “a melody in which a phrase or passage is successively repeated each time a step or half step higher.” And having recently purchased a best-of collection by the Supremes, I realized their song “I Hear A Symphony” was a perfect example of a rosalia. The melody of the chorus is reiterated in the middle of the song three times, each time played a half step higher. So the word seemed a great bee word. Et voilaIt appeared toward the end of the Denver Post bee this year.

Audience reactions. I will never get tired of seeing a parent or fellow coach react with a fist pump or a silent cheer when their speller nails an especially tough word or displays great poise onstage. We all want every speller to succeed.