2017 NSB CHANGES: RANDOMIZING SPELLING ORDER

Hello to everyone from the bustling city of Tianjin, China! Tianjin is a huge city just two hours southwest of Beijing by car, or 30 minutes by high-speed train. It has over 15 million people, or over twice the population of New York City (the most populated city in the US) spread out over about 4500 square miles – nearly the size of Connecticut. I’m here as the academic director for the Spelling Bee of China (SPBCN). In less than a week, we will hold the second annual SPBCN National Spelling Bee, for which I’m the head pronouncer. Needless to say, the office of SPBCN in Tianjin is buzzing with activity, and in a few days, we will travel to Beijing to make final preparations for the bee.

Meanwhile, back in the US, the final regional and qualifying spelling bees for the Scripps national bee are winding down, and final preparations are taking place. One thing Scripps is known for is change – every year, it seems, at least one major change to the competition is announced. This year is no different. The change of note is the announcement of a randomized spelling order. For the first time in decades, the first speller is not from Alabama (that honor goes to Portland, Maine), and the last speller is not from Wyoming, with spellers proceeding in alphabetical order by state. The representative from Alabama will have to wait for 35 other spellers to go first, and the Wyoming representative will be one of those spellers. See the complete list here.

So why randomize the spellers? As far as decisions made by Scripps in the quest to make the best possible national bee, this is a pretty minor and arbitrary one. Besides, it’s been done before, and was actually the status quo for decades. During my three-year tenure as a speller, I sat all over the place. In 1987, I was speller #24, then in 1988, I became #93. In 1989, I had the great luck of being speller #218 out of 222 spellers, and I was thrilled when I found this out at the registration table.

So…wait. Why was it better to be a later speller? Back in the 1980s (and before), your speller number could very significantly determine how you placed. There were no ties. Let’s say you had the bad luck to be speller #1, and one of the last 7 spellers left standing. If you missed your word in a round, you got 7th place. But let’s say you were speller #240, everyone ahead of you had been eliminated in this round, and you were the second-to-last speller to spell. If you missed your word, and the next speller then became the champion, you were declared the runner up…even though you were eliminated in the same round as that hapless speller #1. For decades, this was considered an unfair policy, but it was not rectified until the mid-1990s, when it was decided that everyone who was eliminated in one round then tied for the same place.
So, does being a later speller matter now? Arguably, but only on a psychological level. Personally, I preferred spelling later. Being the first speller to receive a word in a round – especially if it was a difficult round – sometimes felt like I was being plunged into a pool of ice water when I heard my word. If I spelled later, at least I had an idea how the round was going, and what I could expect. But others disagree…they like the chance to just spell and get their turn out of the way earlier than later. Still, randomizing does add a small element of surprise to keep spellers on their toes.

One small note of interest, however: it has been noted that Edith Fuller, the representative from KJRH-TV in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the final speller this year: #290. At all of 5 years, Edith is the youngest speller in the history of the National Spelling Bee. One can speculate whether this was truly a random placement, or whether Edith was placed at the end of the bee to keep everyone watching. But again, a minor issue. At the end of the day, randomizing spelling order is a case of “everything old is new again.”

Photo courtesy of Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee.