Nearly as reliable as the sun rising and setting, almost as inevitable as death and taxes, come the annual rule changes for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. As it happens, the bulk of these changes this year are pretty innocuous, but still noteworthy. So let’s take note and judge them accordingly.
First up is the change to the Preliminaries Test. The past few years have seen the use of multiple choice Scantron tests for both spelling and vocabulary, with 12 questions devoted to each section. This year, the spelling portion will become a handwritten test. This affects all 290 national spellers, but really, as long as a speller has good handwriting, this isn’t anything to worry about.
Next is a change I brought up in an earlier blog post this year, but it’s good to see Scripps finally put it in writing: the official source of words for the National Spelling Bee is the website Merriam-Webster Unabridged. Really, this affects the millions of students who have been and will be competing in the bee from here forward. Now that new words in the dictionary like Icarus and affogato have been seen in bees of all sorts this year, Scripps will not return to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which is, as noted, now out of print. (To be honest, I feel like taking a sad sigh here…and may end up writing a eulogy of sorts for what I’ve considered such a great friend for years.)
Finally, the most momentous change affects the fewest spellers of all: the introduction of the Tiebreaker Test. Given only to the top few spellers still standing at 6 pm on the last day of competition (let’s estimate about 10-15 or so), this will basically be a rehash of the Preliminaries test: 12 handwritten spelling words and 12 multiple choice vocabulary words. Suffice it to say that just like the semifinals test in years past, this will be a brutally difficult test that scours the deepest nooks of the dictionary.
How does this work? Let’s say that, somehow, as happened last year, the top two spellers successfully navigate the maximum of 24 rounds together. The oral competition then ends. The speller, then, with the highest score on the Tiebreaker Test will be declared the champion. The possibility exists, of course, that a tie will still exist, and both spellers will still be declared co-champions. But that possibility should be small, given how byzantine the Tiebreaker Test will be.
There is one essential aspect of the bee the Tiebreaker Test does remove: spontaneity. Everyone lives for the single, unscripted moment of victory created by the successful spelling of that last word into the microphone. You see the speller finish, you immediately hear “congratulations,” and the ballroom erupts into a joyous explosion of applause and cheers. Should the Tiebreaker Test need to be invoked, we will hear both spellers complete their words, but the moment of celebration will be delayed until an announcement is made, and the spontaneity will be dampened. I, for one, hope that the Tiebreaker Test will be just a formality, and not required to bring an end to the 2017 National Spelling Bee.