Covered in bees

This is the second post in just a few days. You might not have seen the one below it yet… I don’t know how dedicated my readership is.

As you know, I qualified for the finals of the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, barely. The finals were yesterday: Monday the 21st. I stepped into the bar just in time to save $2 on a beer by catching their happy hour, and then signed up and sat while the rest of the finalists came in and signed up on the sheet for the night. The finalists were the top three placers from each qualifying bee, each of which was open to eighteen whoever-type people who could wander in off the street. There were a lot more than six bees leading up to this final, but a lot of people won several times, and a couple people couldn’t come (including the legendary Wilson I’d heard so much about), so we actualy only had thirteen people, plus a bunch of spectators.

At 7:30, the hosts got the show rolling. They’re Bobby Blue, who founded this thing back in 2004, and Jen Dziura, who’s good at pronouncing everything except her own name. (It’s Polish, and Poles would say it “Joo-ra”, but she and her immediate family say “Di-zoo-ra”. Damn shame.) I hadn’t seen Bobby Blue yet, because he wasn’t at the bee when I qualified—standing in for him was that shiny-headed man you may remember. To kick off the bee, Jen and Bobby sang a song they had written about the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, with Bobby on guitar. Everyone enjoyed that.

There were all sorts of competitors there. A lot of them were local twenty-somethings, but there was also, for example, a senior woman with a cane that lights up with the flick of a switch on the handle. During the round of icebreaker questions, Jen asked, “If your cane could have any superpower besides lighting up, what would it be?” (Answer: clearing traffic.) There were some middle-aged types, and one man who had just come off of getting second place in the AARP’s national spelling bee, and I think had flown in from California for the pleasure of competing.

The bee ran mostly like last time, with round 1 being one word, and round 2 being two, but this time we cut out the three-word round and just made round 3 the round where you spell until you exhaust your strikes. I was fourth on the list, and I successfully spelled organogeny, which is the process of organs forming. Not many people misspelled anything in the first round, but I think at least one person did. In the second round I got one right, legerdemain (which I repeated in a flowery French accent), but screwed up on bottine (a little French boot thing that women supposedly wore at some point), because I just forgot to think, I guess. I could’ve figured out I should use an o, but I didn’t think about the definition, or about the Spanish word bota for “boot”. I just thought about the pronunciation, which sounded like “bah-teen”, and spelled it the way it would be spelled if you pronounced it that way in French: BATINE. Now that I think about it, that’s eerily similar to the mistake I made with marotte. And I doubt I’ll ever like the French, because of their damn words for stupid trivial things that should be easier to spell if they must even exist, which they of course shouldn’t. But I still had two strikes, so I watched the rest of the round go by.

In round 3 I just really disappointed myself. I got two words right: Pentateuchal and mucilaginous. I spelled rubefacient with an i (damn schwas!). And then Jen gave me a dirty, unanalyzable word: sticomythia. It has to do with telling stories back and forth, so the myth part was obvious, but where the hell was I supposed to have heard the root for talking back and forth? I guessed it had an h. It didn’t. And there was no way I had placed. So all I could do was sit down and watch everyone else.

Immediately I felt bitter, because when Tamara, a British woman, came up after me she got a long string of words, all of which I knew how to spell unhesitatingly. But she eventually got out on something where I’d have had no clue whatsoever; I believe it was steentjie, which is some species of something-or-other from South Africa (it’s Afrikaans, and pronounced “steenchy”). And as the bee wore on, I realized I might not have gotten too far among these people even if I hadn’t been given dirty schwas and nonce Greek roots. There were some serious spellers there, people who could spell things like ditalini, which all knowledge of Italian tells you should have at least one doubled letter (my guess was DITTELINI). When David R., the AARP 2nd-placer, came on, I realized I could never have gotten first place. This was because he spelled something pronounced “ainchee”. Go on and guess. You’d never get it in a million years without access to a dictionary or a South African botanist. If you were Scottish you might try AIN’T YE?; if you were a regular person you’d probably go with something like AINCHIE. David R. said, “Oh, Afrikaans?”, and then, without even pausing, calmly spelled UINTJIE. Immediately Bobby yelled, “That is the hardest word I have ever seen in all the years of this spelling bee!” David R. had already spelled about 20 words without even flinching, so they told him he could sit down and they’d call him back up if anyone somehow got close enough to challenge him. If they hadn’t done that, he probably would’ve spelled every word in their book of words, and then asked them to start quizzing him on Chinese characters.

As I’d expected, I didn’t place, but everyone got prizes; mine was a set of Bananagrams. David R. got two hundred bucks and a big stuffed neuron with cute eyes and a trophy and books and a DVD of Spellbound. He also got a big bar tab, but he let the other David, David Z., have it. I hope you’re happy, David R.: you won enough to cover most of your airfare back to California, and killed the dreams of everyone in New York who thought they were pretty good at spelling. He did look pretty happy, actually. He was having fun with his big plush neuron.

A bunch of people left, but some of the other spellers hung around at the bar and talked. David Z. bought me a drink with the tab he’d inherited, and he and Jen and I sat at the bar a long time and talked about stuff. I met Carolyn, another speller, and we both reminisced about our National Spelling Bee days—she went in 1997. Eventually the night died out and I went home, perhaps a loser, but happy to at least have played.

File under: interesting people · Places: NYC

Note: comments are temporarily disabled because Google’s spam-blocking software cannot withstand spammers’ resolve.



Sounds like an awesome time! I think your best strategy is to invent some words, get them in the dictionary, and then someday, you'll know the obscure words that nobody else does.

It's nice you are in a place that does such things, I've never heard of it being done in the Nati area.

Your German DNA must prevent you from spelling those French words. If it were the other way around, you would have quit the spelling be once you heard the difficult German word.





I would have bought you drinks all night (apple cider, maybe hard apple cider. ) just because you were in the finals. Great Job…. G.Pa.




Sorry your nemesis seems to be the French language. I agree it's a bear to spell, but you've got to admit the language is beautiful. Can't believe someone would be able to spell uintjie. That's crazy. Anyway, it sounds like you had a lot of fun and learned to appreciate how hard it is to spell EVERYTHING right. We're proud of you. Grandma

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