Audio blog post by Dr. Isaacs. Click to listen and read along!

The evening of May 30th, 2019, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center was fraught with excitement and nerves…just like any other Thursday evening during Scripps Bee Week. This is the night of the ESPN Primetime Finals. Paul Loeffler, color commentator for the bee on ESPN, remarked presciently as the evening finals got underway that he was unable to choose a favorite speller to win because the field was so deep. The daytime finals had lasted five and a half hours instead of the anticipated four. And instead of achieving the goal of having 8-12 spellers to continue to the evening finals, Scripps had to settle for a full 16.

Despite a set of evening final rounds that seemed formidable, the field was being eroded slowly, like a well-battened concrete building in the face of a hurricane. By the end of round 17, eight remaining spellers had spelled two rounds perfectly, and only one speller had been eliminated in the round before that (and only one eliminated in the round before that.) Here, Dr. Jacques Bailly, the pronouncer, made the calm but groundbreaking announcement: there would only be three more rounds of spelling. At the end of those three rounds, whoever was left standing would be declared a co-champion. Theoretically, there could be as many as eight co-champions…an outcome hitherto unimaginable.

“Theoretically” became “really” within a half hour. Despite evident fatigue – and in at least one case, a voice-threatening illness – each of the top eight spelled perfectly in the equivalent of the championship rounds. The final words – auslaut, erysipelas, bougainvillea, aiguillette, pendeloque, palama, cernuous, and odylic – while difficult and championship word-appropriate, were a noticeable step or two down from the difficulty of words just a few short rounds previous. Each correct spelling was met with a deafening cheer from the audience. And once the final letter was uttered, the octochamps met at stage center to the blasting of confetti cannons and the new colorful ceramic trophy. The ending was an absolute thrill for most everyone.

However, as former Scripps finalist and current spelling coach Sylvie Lamontagne assessed, this was “the best night ever for the kids; a worrisome night for the future of the event.” If May 30th was the night the bee was broken, the cracks in the bee had been building for the past decade. Ironically, the opposite scenario from 2019 took place in 2010, when spellers were being eliminated at such a rapid pace that the daytime finals of the bee had to be halted in the middle of the sixth round to ensure an appropriate evening primetime program. And even then, the carnage continued at an unprecedented pace, despite words not being more difficult than in previous years. 2010’s bee ended after just nine short rounds, and Scripps and ABC (the television host of the bee at the time) found themselves in the unenviable position of having to fill unanticipated empty TV time.

For some reason, though, 2011 brought about a reversal of this nadir. Without words becoming appreciably more difficult, the field appeared to rise to the challenge. The top five spellers went four solid rounds without missing a single word, and only one missed in the next round, leaving the top four to spell yet another round beyond that without a mistake. Juxtaposed with the besmirched 2010 bee, 2011 was thrilling and a welcome return to form. Then 2014 brought the beginning of three years of co-champions. In response, Scripps boosted the championship list in 2016 so it lasted for 25 rounds instead of 25 words, then instituted a tiebreaker test in 2017 to forestall another year of co-champions. Yet despite these measures, there was only one year between 2014 and 2018 in which the championship word list did not come close to being exhausted. Clearly, spellers have been improving, and Scripps is fighting to stay ahead of them.

To understand why spellers have been improving so dramatically over the past decade, one must look at their preparation. The materials available are legion: online resources including Merriam Webster Unabridged (with its powerful but flawed search capabilities), the Consolidated Word List and Spell It; the multifarious materials published by educational company Hexco; books including Words of Wisdom, How to Spell Like a Champ, A Champion’s Guide to Success in Spelling Bees, and Words From The Champs; and most recently, the website Spell Pundit. Spellers of South Asian descent have a conspicuous advantage over their fellow spellers, able to take especial advantage of two spelling bee circuits (the North South Foundation competitions and the South Asian Spelling Bee), though minor circuits open to all such as the North America Spelling Champion Challenge have sprung up recently as well. And the presence of online communities such as Google Groups have also become instrumental in making spellers unusually adept at spelling bees. In these groups, spellers come up with their own word lists, act as pronouncers, and compete against one another in frequent mock bees. These communities are purely for students; being 30 years removed from my spelling years, I would be as welcome as a “cool” dad wearing dad jeans barging in on his daughter’s slumber party with healthy snacks. And, of course, spelling coaching services like Panda Spell, as well as others offered by Lamontagne and Grace Walters, barely visible a decade ago, have exploded onto the landscape, currently dominated by immediate past spellers. The combination of these entities have created a perfect storm of expertise among spellers, the likes of which could not have been imagined ten years ago. And such preparation created this year’s octochamps – an astounding conclusion that no one anticipated. Including Scripps.

Hyperbolic headlines now abound about how these exceptional spellers broke the bee and bested the dictionary. One former Scripps finalist even called this Armageddon. Since Scripps did not plan for such a deep field, was unable to eliminate spellers with what it considered the most difficult words in the dictionary, and had to cry uncle, what happens now? You can bet there will be many meetings over the next year addressing this very situation. Is the traditional spelling bee now obsolete, relegated to the scrap heap of educational competitions that no longer apply? Can preparation be too good?

A few years ago, I confronted this question for the first time. As pronouncer for the North America Spelling Champion Challenge, I was taken aback when one of the spellers noticed an unusually high number of words in the bee that were new to Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online. I asked him how he figured this, and he revealed that he and his family had come up with software that teased out every word listed as new from Merriam Webster Unabridged, so he was familiar with these words. (From this software sprang Spell Pundit.) From a goal-oriented software engineer’s perspective, this is a great achievement: it neatly hoovers all the lexical chaff away, leaving nothing but the words one needs to learn, optimizing one’s time. But this “achievement” rang hollow to me. Isn’t it more fun to dictionary dive and explore, to experience that little frisson of delight upon serendipitously discovering a new word? I have spoken with a few coaches on this very issue, and they tend to agree with me. Yet Prometheus, in the guise of the software engineer, has brought fire to humans, and we are now seeing its effects. And the fire cannot be taken back.

Both these technological advances and the glut of study material and guidance partly explain why the word list became inadequate this year. I’d like to touch on another reason. When I appeared on CNN the day after this year’s bee, I noted that the words that had been used were as difficult as I had ever seen. At the risk of sounding like I am backpedaling, this is true…depending on one’s perspective. From a layperson’s view, words such as the ones displayed by the chyron including auftaktigkeit and omphalopsychite are tremendously impressive, and are, indeed, very difficult to spell for most. (Words like jindyworobak and tjaele fall into this category as well.) Anyone will be wowed by the skill of spellers who can fell these words – and remember: spelling bees are just as much a form of entertainment as education. However, such words stick to a top speller’s brain like refrigerator magnets precisely because they look so impressive. As a top speller myself, it took me no more than two looks at omphalopsychite and jindyworobak to commit them to memory for life, and auftaktigkeit and tjaele have been in my memory for years, originally learned with similar ease. In contrast, seemingly simpler words can pose greater risks because they are likely to be overlooked for…well, seeming simpler. It is worth noting that the only word during the final round that seemed to give a speller pause was among the simplest and shortest ones: palama.

Is the bee dead? Possibly. And by that, I mean the traditional bee, the bee that existed in more or less the fashion it was created in the 1800s, and that created the Scripps National Spelling Bee as it existed, mostly unchanged, until the introduction of a vocabulary test in 2013. And to traditionalists, this may be something to mourn. But let’s be honest. For whom is the bee “dead”? Eight spellers, out of a field of eleven million? Those are very low numbers, and I’d suggest that anyone who thinks the bee is actually dead is being quite myopic. With the celebration of those eight spellers sharing a well-deserved victory, it is apparent the bee is anything but dead.

In a New York Times editorial, one writer floated the idea that perhaps Scripps accepts the possibility of spellers besting the dictionary (or the word list) each year, with such a conclusion a cause for celebration. However, given the amount of hullabaloo this year’s bee has provoked, a change is practically inevitable. Since the 1990s, Scripps has shown an admirable willingness, year after year, to change the bee’s format when necessary to improve it, and a willingness to retract or amend those changes if necessary.

So now comes the Tolstoyan question: What is to be done? Speculation at this point will abound. But one idea that has been bandied about the commentariat is particularly compelling: hire on a recently-retired speller (or spellers) to the word panel. Who better to know what words are tricky for this generation, and which are obvious? The caveat to this is that any candidate would have to cede any exposure to other spellers, whether as a coach, in Google Groups or in any other manner.

Regardless of a speller’s placement, the spelling bee remains an excellent whetstone for every competitor. If there is to be a change, it is only necessary at the national level, and only for the top, most visible spellers. But a change should take place. Scripps must become more creative, proactive, and prepared to tackle the challenges this generation of spellers has created. Was a time when the bee was set up by adults to challenge students. This situation has now effectively been reversed.

Photo Credit: Mark Bowen/Scripps