A Positively Singular Bee

From left: Shruthika Padhy, 13, of Cherryhill, N.J.; Erin Howard, 14, of Huntsville, Ala.; Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of San Jose, Calif.; Christopher Serrao, 13, of Whitehouse Station, N.J.; Saketh Sundar, 13, Clarksville, Md.; Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Dallas, Texas; Rohan Raja, 13, of Irving, Texas; and Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Flower Mound, Texas, celebrate their eight-way tie in the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in National Harbor, Md., May 31, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

What does a photodynamic South-African sheep disease (Geeldikkop), navel-gazing hesychastic prayer (omphalopsychite), and Dionysian theatre altars of antique Greece (thymele) have in common? Frankly, not much. But each word from which these definitions derive featured in the 92nd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

This year stood out not merely for the number of words with enough syllables to make any red-blooded American sweat, but for the final number of champions.

The bee began on Sunday, with 562 competitors, all of whom were no more than 15 years old or beyond eighth grade, and concluded yesterday. On Thursday, May 30, at the 17th of 20 rounds, for the first time in a long time, the dictionary seemed to have met its matches.

Dr. Jacques Bailly, who has been the official pronouncer of the Scripps Spelling Bee since 2003, declared to the finalists: “we’re throwing the dictionary at you and so far, you are showing the dictionary who is boss.”

At the end of the 20 rounds, there were still a total of eight co-champions: Rishik Gandhasri; Erin Howard; Saketh Sundar; Shruthika Padhy; Sohum Sukhatankar; Abhijay Kodali; Christopher Serrao; and Rohan Raja.

When Erin Howard received her final word, erysipelas, the name of a bacterial skin infection, she nearly wept with joy. Surely one of few people to react to that word without consternation or confusion.

There have been co-champions in previous years, but never as many as eight at once. Some spelling bee veterans expressed disapproval following the result. Rahul Walia, the founder of the South Asian Spelling Bee, said that “this would never happen at my bee…They need to use harder words. The words are available.”

Although it is true that many of the roots of the words used in the final rounds were traceable, and the bee featured few totally etymologically ambiguous or anomalous words, another cause of this year’s surfeit of successful spellers is also likely the formalization of studying techniques.

Scott Remer, author of Words of Wisdom: Keys to Success in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, commenting on the extraordinary end to the bee, told the Atlantic that “a great speller not only knows a lot of words, but can basically spell even words they haven’t practiced before—because they understand the logic and the languages, and they’re able to apply word roots to novel words that they run across.”

Supposedly with the help of Remer’s book and devoted tutors, more and more children have mastered the formula for bee success, hence the octo-champions.

No matter the explanation, more nimble spellers seems like a boon to us all.  And besides the satisfaction of a job well done, each winner will receive a $50,000 prize.

Congratulations! Felicitations! Accolations! And so on and so forth, et cetera, et cetera.  

Well done, young cognoscenti!

VIEW SLIDESHOW: Scripps National Spelling Bee

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