The student weekly of St. Olaf College
Manitou Messenger: Puttin' a S-P-E-L-L on you

Puttin' a S-P-E-L-L on you

By April Wright
Variety Editor
Friday, October 12, 2007

I think we can all remember elementary and middle school spelling bees. I was a good speller and a shameless grade school pedant, so I liked them. But for most other students, the annual all-school spelling bee meant sweaty palms and getting exposed as either an egghead or an idiot.

The Northfield Adult Spelling Bee is nothing like that. Participants in the Second Northfield Adult Spelling Bee (NASB) were thrilled to be up in front of a crowd, basking in the spotlight as they effortlessly spelled out the tough words.

The evening started out with introductions. In true community-event form, a little too much pride was shown in silly team names. But beneath plastic hats and knitting needles used as hair pins, spelling beasts lurked.

The first few rounds of a spelling bee are about as exciting as watching paint dry. Words like "organic," "museum," "vocation" and "collapse" whizzed by without complication. Assigned words such as "giggle" and "massacre" drew laughter and mild jeers from rival teams in half-hearted attempts to keep up a lively front, but in between bursts of friendly, jocular rivalry, the silence over crowd and contestants alike was heavy.

In case you are unfortunate enough to never have participated in a spelling bee, the format goes something like this: a word is spoken, and the speller rationalizes how to spell it. The speller is allowed to ask to hear the word in a sentence and to ask for the word's language of origin before committing to a spelling. When they've decided how it's spelled, they hop on up to the microphone and recite the incantation: "Word. W-O-R-D. Word," three times . Then Bloody Mary comes out of the mirror to gouge the speller's eyes out. Oh wait, now I'm mixing up my childhood games. The speller recites the incantation once, and then the panel tells them whether they're right or wrong. My bad.

To pass the time until the blood started spilling, my compatriots and I began making up more creative sentences in which to use the assigned words. While announcer Melissa Ousely maintained a strong sense of decorum and family-friendliness, we came up with sentences such as, "Notorious. The Notorious B.I.G. never fails to hypnotize me. Notorious." Another favorite was "Legionnaire. I am a Legionnaire, my camel in disrepair. Legionnaire." I think for next year, I should be hired to script the dialogue.

The first near-kill of the night involved the Tuesday Night Knitters in the second round. Speaker Jessica Jasper got up to the mic, ready to spell "coagulate" and promptly burst out with a slip-of-the-tongue: "co-ag-gull." But rather than collapse in mild embarrassment due to her slip-up, homegirl played it cool as a cucumber. "C-o-a-g-u-l-a-t-e. Coagulate," she said before marching triumphantly off stage. I guess I was happy for her because no one likes to fail. Though honestly, the whole point of spelling bees is to feel superior to other people because you can spell words that they can't. Well, and to spread literacy throughout the land and raise money for the Friends of the Northfield Library, which was the charity of choice of the NASB. But really, that's ancillary to the fact that spelling bees are more-or-less gladiator matches for people far too scrawny to pick up and swing a sword.

I didn't have to wait much longer for the first kill. Carleton's Ultraviolet Catastrophe bungled it on "prerogative." Speaker Peter Berry '07, got up and spelled it "perogative." I know I should have raised my fists to the heavens and whooped in victory as our rivals from across town fell like thin oak trees in a severe thunderstorm, but I happen to like neighbors to the east. I was kind of sad to see them fall. Not too much, though; I'm not a total bleeding heart.

I caught up with Berry later to ask what happened. "Her pronunciation made me second guess myself," he said. He then went on to say something that I could definitely sympathize with. "It's like on Star Trek: 'Captain's prerogative,'" he lamented. I understand totally. As an avid science fiction fan, the pronunciation of words by everyday people is frequently but a shadow of what Patrick Stewart or David Tennant can provide.

The shock of Carleton's loss hadn't even worn off by the time the Northfield Downtown Development Corp. (NDDC) lost. To be honest, I had a hard time connecting with the NDDC as a team. Their crisp, matching black shirts and boring name left me wondering: where was the heart of the team. I wasn't really feeling them, and so when they spelled "legionnaire" with only one "n," I didn't really have much of a reaction.

By round four, the words were getting harder and a whole lot weirder. When Ousley called out "spinnaker" as the word for team St. Oluf (why yes, that is the correct misspelling), a collective "hmmmm" rose into the air. It turns out a spinnaker is a sail designed to sail with the wind 90 to 180 degrees off the bow. You learn something new everydayÂ…especially if you go to spelling bees.

By the end of round four, the bravado and confidence that came with spelling words like "gladiator" had faded. In its place, a type of fear and panic had sprung up. Spelling like it ain't no thang gave way slowly to tentatively begging, "Rhododendron? R-h-o-d-o-d-e-n-d-r-o-n? Rhododendron?"

The next team to give up the spelling ghost was the St. Olaf Avenue Spellers. Their word was "genealogy." On the next turn, the Coldwell Banker team succumbed to "succumbed." In reality, it was just a misspeaking, a split second in which the team spokesperson lost concentration and had a tongue slip. But one second is all it takes. It's hard out there for a player, er, speller.

And then, out of nowhere, the words got really easy. "Crucible" somehow showed up at the end of round four. That's' a travesty. After Oluf had to spell "spinnaker," a word that gets used in Minnesota somewhere on the order of never, the competition had been completely declawed to a level of difficulty similar to a high school sophomore English class and a first-year chemistry lab write-up. If I wasn't gripped in fascination at the competition, I totally would have left in protest.

The loser train was picking up steam. The Nancy Drew Fan Club was unable to unravel the first mystery of round five: the spelling of the word "echelon." For one second, I thought the Neuger Communications Group was going to slip up. The word was "hematite." Ousley pronounced it "heem-a-tite." My experience in geology is minor at best, but I've never heard it pronounced that way. I could see how easy it would be to trip up in that situation, but the Neugs sailed on by like nothing was up.

It was the French that got the Countryside Animal Hospital crew. After several extremely lucky spelling guesses in the past few rounds, they proved that they are not auteurs of spelling by misspelling "auteur." The B-Team bit the dust almost immediately afterwards. Speaker CC Linstroth's gaped jaw in reaction to the loss was painfully hilarious and won the dubious honor of being the best reaction of the night, according to Griff Wigley, a blogger on Locally Grown.

Unfortunately for them, the level of difficulty of the words let up after they struck out. "Periphery," "eugenics" and "bagatelle" all made appearances. I have to admit that at this point in the bee, I was feeling like I might never see any for-real, cutthroat spelling bee action.

Round seven faded without event into the 15 minute intermission. Since the St. Olaf home team, made up of Paul Zorn, a math professor, David Gonnerman, the Olaf media guru, and a woman billed as Dean of Students Greg Kneser (the woman was later confirmed to be Director of Neuroscience and Associate Professor of Psychology Shelley Dickinson rather than Greggy K. in disguise), was still in the running, I knew what I had to do. I needed to fan the flames of competition.

During the intermission, I sidled up to Zorn to find out how Oluf was holding up to the intense pressure of the bee. "Hey, Professor Zorn. How are you guys feeling going into the second half?" I blurted out. I was so smooth.

"Very confident. All we wanted to do was knock Carleton out of the competition," Zorn replied with a congenial pat on the back to Carleton spokesman Peter Berry, before making a run for the snack table.

I quickly loaded up on cheesecake squares, cucumber slices and something that I thought was pepperjack cheese but was actually something else (I still don't know what) as the second half was starting and new rules were being read out by emcee Bill North. In an attempt to make the Grand into a veritable pressure cooker, contestants now had only 30 seconds to hash out the correct spelling of words with their teammates. Things were about to get interesting.

I immediately noticed that several of the seats in the contestant holding pen were absent. It appeared that a smattering of losers had decided to head home - or maybe just drown their loss at the bar. The empty seats weighed heavily on my mind; it was like driving past a graveyard and wondering when you'll join the dead. How could I handle the pressure? The answer was simple: I couldn't. I needed more cheese, and possibly to hit that bar.

And then the whole house of cards came toppling down. First, a "sensei" struck down the Tuesday Night Knitters. Or, perhaps I should say they were struck down by a "sense," an entity of their own misspelling. This one was actually kind of funny, because speaker Jessica Jasper had already started to exit the stage by the time Ousley called her misspelling. Ouch.

Then, the Neuger Communications Group lost to "exacerbate," which, incidentally, is my favorite word in the whole of the English language. Northfield News fell shortly thereafter to "raillery," another one of those "What?" words.

And then, the world was silent. There were only two teams left: St. Oluf and Northfield Rotary. They were neck-and-neck. Nez-a-nez. This was a no holds barred fight to the death. I wish I could think of a million more clichés to describe the seriousness and intensity of the situation, but I'm spent.

The teams climbed on stage. They existed in their own microcosm of letters, languages and obscure words. The battle - I mean bee - was the only thing that mattered.

The Rotary held up to "physiognomy." St. Oluf slew "frigacy," a word I suspect had not been uttered in Northfield since the days of Jesse James.

Then, "verisimilitude" happened. As an avid fan of MTV's "Daria" in my younger years, I could spell verisimilitude forwards and backwards. The Rotary, however, could not. I guess watching hours and hours of cable must not have been on their agendas in the late '90's. St. Oluf picked it up and smacked it down. They won.

Except they hadn't. For some reason, there is a rule in spelling bees that the winner has to spell another word to be crowned Spelling Gods. It seems kind of superfluous. I mean, what are the judges going to do, raise the Rotary from the grave? Not have a winner at all?

Well, whatever the contingency plan was, St. Oluf now faced a disturbingly wimpy opponent: cinephile. Little hisses escaped the crowd as everyone tried to spell it quietly to their neighbor.

And then there was silence. Paul Zorn was at the podium.

"Cinephile."

"C-I-N-E-P-H-I-L-E."

"Cinephile."

For a moment, no one breathed. And then Ousley's words rang out. "That is correct."

The crowd erupted.

The Manitou Messenger is a student publication of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. It is published weekly during the academic year except during vacations, exam periods and interim. The cost for one year's subscription is $45.00. Postage is paid in Northfield, Minnesota. Manitou Messenger
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