Monday, May 28, 2007

“Cortege” got demoted after the death of Princess Diana, when reporters used the French-sounding word over and over to describe the funeral procession.

These days, it’s a softball word for the best of the 286 spellers gathering at the Grand Hyatt Washington in Northwest for the 80th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. The competition begins Wednesday and culminates with a prime-time Thursday-night finish on ABC-TV.

The young competitors have spent months poring over word lists and dictionaries, probing the depths of etymology in an attempt to answer one nagging question: What strange word is Carolyn Andrews going to come up with next?

“It is tricky,” said Miss Andrews, who has the daunting task of finding competitive words for the bee. “What’s easy for one person might be difficult for another. That is the hardest part of developing the word list.”

“Cortege” is one example of a word that simply lost its degree of difficulty when used in everyday vocabulary, she said.

Miss Andrews, whose son won the bee in 1994, has been the word-list manager since 1998, leading a three-person panel that spends the year looking for words in likely — and unlikely — places. One year, she added “cloisonne” (an enamel process used to make jewelry) after spotting it in a mail-order catalog.

In a perfect world, all of the words in each round would be equally difficult to spell. No one wants to hear that audience groan that says: “Oh, that’s an easy one.”

“There is no objective way to evaluate the difficulty level of words,” said Paige Kimble, the spelling bee’s director. “There are words that people are exposed to more frequently because of where they live or because of their culture or because of their age.”

Last year’s winner, Katharine Close, 14, of Spring Lake, N.J., said she didn’t know some of the words that knocked out her competitors.

“It’s just a matter of luck that I didn’t get those, and I got words that I did know how to spell,” she said.

Two years ago, Samir Patel wasn’t happy when he finished second after missing the word “Roscian” while his opponent correctly spelled “appoggiatura.”

Appoggiatura (a type of musical note) looks a lot uglier in print, but Roscian (pertaining to acting) — with its capital letter — is one of those dreaded proper adjectives, words based on names that don’t always follow the usual rules of structure that help the best spellers piece together the letters.

“A lot of times the difficulty is just a matter of opinion,” said Samir, 13, of Colleyville, Texas. He is competing for the fifth time this year and is considered one of the favorites.

The spellers have plenty of resources to give them a head start. The bee’s Web site has a consolidated word list of 23,413 words from previous bees, and Miss Andrews writes a 36-week course of study called “Carolyn’s Corner.”

But the one and only complete source for study is the unabridged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary — and it contains more than 470,000 entries.

“We don’t advocate memorizing lists,” Miss Andrews said. “We want them to learn how words are put together. We want them to learn prefixes, suffixes and combining forms, and spelling patterns of the various languages.”

There comes a point, however, when the bee has to separate the elite from the rest of the pack. The spellers know that as the competition nears its end, more and more words come out of left field, words like “weltschmerz” (a type of mental depression), which stymied the runner-up last year.

“Obviously, the competition can’t go on forever,” Miss Andrews said. “That’s how you get a champion — by making the words more difficult.”

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