Buzzed About

Our own (recently dethroned) spelling bee champ on the pressures of navigating the twisted jungle of the English language.

My school system, for some reason, never participated in the long-running annual National Spelling Bee. The Catholic schools in town did, the public schools didn't. But it was less a desire to right this injustice than a need for some sort of public recognition for my otherwise useless knowledge (yes, I write for a living, but somehow words like yttriferous never seem to crop up) that led me to high-school "Math Track Meets," six years of intercampus College Bowl (bzzz—"The Edict of Nantes?" "Correct for 10!"), and finally the Seattle Spelling Bee at Re-bar.

Hosts Josh Malamy (himself a winner of a similar bar bee in New York City) and Benjamin Williams (master of the naughty, beer-fueled double entendre) started the adults-only event in July 2006. Every first Monday, it draws a crowd eager to make up for lost opportunities, relive childhood triumphs, and celebrate unabashed nerdiness. Unlike the national kids' bee, the Seattle Spelling Bee is not a single-elimination bout. The rules are engineered for minimum humiliation: In the first round, each contestant (the first 20 people to sign up) goes onstage in turn and spells one word, selected from a list of the most commonly misspelled words. In Round 2, everyone gets two, slightly harder; in Round 3 (if you make it), three, mostly insane. You get three strikes before you're out; very few spellers don't make it to Round 3. You can ask for a definition and a language of origin, which may or may not help—the contestant told that hoydenish came "possibly from obsolete Dutch" came no closer to getting it right.

The top three placers in each of six monthly bees advance to the finals. With no-shows and multiple winners, that left 12 contestants on Aug. 6 for the second-season finals. The front-runners seemed to be Chloe, who had won the most preliminaries; John, a dark horse who'd impressed everyone on his first appearance in July; and myself, the first-season champion defending the title I'd earned—three decades too late, but still—in January.

English is a language rife with illogicalities and irregularities of all kinds, a language in which rough, cough, bough, through, and dough don't rhyme, but the last syllables of ambitious, conscious, sebaceous, delicious, and nauseous are all pronounced the same. Double letters are a hazard—I had to rack my brain for my Round 1 word, millennium—and schwas are even worse. (Though it's not as bad as French, with all those silent letters, not to mention diacritical marks and gender issues. Do you know how they run spelling bees in France? The emcee reads a sentence, and everyone has to write it down. The winner is the one with the fewest errors, since the sentences are so long and complex that getting every accent aigu and silent "s" perfectly correct via dictation is essentially impossible.) On the other hand, you can easily overthink and psych yourself out; confronted with the word zax, I spent minutes running through outlandish possibilities (xacks? zachse? szaax?) before reluctantly guessing correctly.

In Round 2, I drew the manageable liquefiable and whippoorwill. Round 3 opened with the intimidating, moan-inducing chrystocrene, and the spellers began to fall. Matt, the eventual winner, earned especially warm applause by nailing cymotrichous (curly-haired). I lucked out with Turcophil and eruciform (caterpillar-shaped) before whiffing on byrnie (a coat of chain mail) by wrongly replacing the y with a u.

At the end of Round 3, the five of us remaining were each set to spell as many words in a row as we could until the third strike landed. Josh pronounced my next word, and the first image in my head was asseirage. Definition? Coating with a layer of iron or steel. Hmmm, steel, steel, steel....Ohhh. Yes! Prokofiev's Le Pas d'acier—The Steel Step. I bet it's acierage. "A-C-E. . ." FuckfuckFUCK. Knowledge of obscure Russian ballets didn't save me; at that crucial moment, for the first time in any bee, I correctly envisioned a word and misspoke the letters.

In the Peanuts film Snoopy Come Home, Charlie Brown wins his way to a national spelling bee and ironically loses on the word beagle. Now life imitated art, for my last-chance word, my potential third strike, was a musical instrument—after Josh had helpfully pointed out (when others had gotten concitato and cancrizans) that I was a musician by trade. A small guitar. Chittarino, maybe? So I thought. Two double-letter traps to avoid here. And of course the correct spelling is chitarrino. That was that.

Still, five correct earned me a content third place behind Matt and John, and a spot in Bumbershoot's bee on Sunday—an exhibition match with Re-bar champs up against regional winners from the kids' bee. With the very real possibility of being ego-checked by 12-year-old savants, and no alcohol to ease the pain, the tension will be higher still.

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