It’s not often you see judges at Scripps entertain a speller’s protest, and even rarer to see a speller reinstated. I’ve personally – live – only seen it happen twice. In 1988, a speller from Detroit named Robin Covey received the word kyphosis. Mishearing it as “typhosis” (not an actual word), he misspelled it as he had heard it. However, Robin successfully protested. The judges agreed that he had misheard it, and they had failed to correct him. Alas, he immediately missed his next word: enchytrae. (Still, that earned him third place that year.) And in 2019, Max Greenspan of Scottsdale, Arizona was reinstated after being prematurely eliminated in the second round. (His issue was hearing the bell despite possibly not being finished with his word, mot juste.)

A remarkable protest took place in 2010, when four-timer Neetu Chandak received the word paravane, (a torpedo-shaped device meant to protect against underwater mines). Neetu asked all the right questions, including a root question that showed she was “on the right track.” But then she spelled “perivane,” and was eliminated in the fifth round. On further examination, the judges determined that they had answered her root question in a way that may have swayed her away from the correct spelling. They deemed such information unfair, and so she earned her place back on stage.

Peri- vs. para-

So what is the issue? The two Greek roots peri- and para- actually do have similar meanings. Serious spellers would do well to learn the differences between the two. Let’s take them one at a time.

Peri- is a root that simply means “all around,” “near,” or “surrounding.” You see this root in words like periscope, (an instrument most often seen on submarines that allows you to see all around you). The word perimeter also comes from this root.

Para- is fairly similar. One meaning of para- is “next to,” hence the confusion that arose when Neetu began asking her root word questions. And here is where things can get difficult. Another meaning of para- is “closely resembling.” My guess is that this is the true meaning behind paravane. A paravane resembles a torpedo, or perhaps a vane (a movable device that shows the direction of the wind). But the definition of paravane is not specific enough to give a speller that information. I suspect that Neetu asked if the root’s definition was “near” or “next to.” You can understand why the judges may not have been sure exactly how to respond to Neetu’s question.

The take-home

Here is the main lesson. First, knowing roots can almost always help out in deciphering words. Neetu’s struggle with paravane was a rare case in which root word knowledge may be helpful, but too little knowledge can be dangerous. Neetu was fortunate that the judges rightly ruled that they gave her information that misled her.

Secondly, the roots peri- and para- are almost too similar. Don’t confuse these roots! Learn the subtle but very important differences between them.

Photo credit: Lt. Harold B Phelps.