Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sesquipedelian Agonistes

I read American Bee: The National Spelling Bee And the Culture Of Word Nerds, James Maguire. In it, the author, a journalist I believe, covers the Scripps National Spelling Bee from 2003 to 2005. It’s a long book, 360 pages, and quite disjointed (it resembles a collection of loosely related magazine articles at times, flitting from subject to subject --- from profiles of past champions to the history of American spelling bees in general to a history of the English language and why our spelling is so eccentric). Nevertheless, it’s an exciting read, and all the history serves as great preparatory material for the book’s final section: profiles of five top spellers and how they do at the 2004 bee. It’s also quite fascinating to see how simple the words given to children up until the 1980s or so were; clearly, this is one academic area in which the standards have gotten more, not less, stringent. A rare phenomenon indeed.

Maguire does a great job making this world understandable and interesting. I came away from it incredibly impressed with these overachieving tweens: in addition to being national competitors in spelling, most of them play an instrument, excel at a sport, and/or compete in other areas such as chess, math or geography. It almost makes one hopeful for the future. Almost.

Of course, the ability to spell things like "ookinete" or "rorqual," as jaw-droppingly impressive as it is in a child of twelve or thirteen (or even a college professor), isn't a reliable indicator of an expansive and utile vocabulary. Neither is it a skill that comes in handy in the adult world, whereas actually knowing the definitions of words always will be. So while I do admire the Scripps competitors, and understand the broad attractions of a spelling bee --- I do kind of wish there was an equally influential vocabulary bee. Quick! Define "flocculent!"

No comments: