OXON HILL, Md. – By the time the confetti fell Thursday night and Dev Shah was crowned winner of the 95th Scripps National Spelling Bee, the eighth-grader from Florida had vanquished an impressive slate of words that showed just how far the event’s organizers have gone to stump the nation’s best spellers.
In 15 rounds of spelling and vocabulary, the 14-year-old identified the meaning of “legerdemain” and “chiromancy,” and correctly spelled “aegagrus,” “schistorrhachis” and “bathypitotmeter.” His final word – “psammophile” – was a far cry from the winning words of years past, such as “croissant” in 1970 or “luge” in 1984.
Twelve-year-old Navtaj Singh of Pullman reached the semifinals for the second consecutive year, finishing in a tie for 12th place after correctly spelling “rissole,” “empest,” “piezometer” and “oleo.” The sixth-grader fell just one word short of the finals, stumbling over “meromictic,” which describes a lake in which layers of water don’t intermix, like Soap Lake in Grant County.
On Tuesday, the first of three days of competition, Singh said he felt better than he did a year earlier, when he was one of only two fifth-graders to reach the semifinals.
“I feel like it’s more enjoyable for me this year, because I know what I have to do,” he said, adding that he was prepared for the words to get harder in the coming rounds. “It’s a nonlinear curve. It starts out really easy, and then suddenly it just spikes up in difficulty.”
The degree of difficulty in the preliminaries seemed especially uneven, partly because the first two rounds were based on a fixed list of 4,000 words the spellers were given in advance, which meant they faced seemingly tougher tests than in a third round that drew from a much larger pool of words.
The Bee’s first round knocked out 59 of the 229 spellers who had won regional bees across the United States, U.S. territories and several foreign countries to reach the championships, including Kayla Tenney Villalobos of Coeur d’Alene. The eighth-grader misspelled “temalacatl” – a stone used in Aztec sacrificial rites – only to watch spellers face words like “feral,” “levy” and “marshmallow” in round three.
“Some of those words are going to seem inordinately difficult,” Jacques Bailly, the Bee’s official pronouncer, said in an interview after the first round. “But it’s because they’re possible to prestudy.”
Tenney Villalobos said she was feeling confident when her turn came, after knowing most of the words that faced spellers before her. The Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy student, who speaks fluent Spanish, said she was disappointed after she was eliminated on a word that comes from Nahuatl, an Indigenous language spoken in what is now Mexico, her mother’s home country.
“The pronunciation was different than the way someone who speaks Spanish would pronounce it, so that’s kind of what threw me off,” Tenney Villalobos said. “If my mom had said it or someone who speaks Spanish, I definitely think I would have gotten it or I would have been closer at least.”
As spellers have mastered sophisticated strategies to spell a baffling array of words, Bee organizers have sometimes struggled to find the right degree of difficulty to winnow the field during the nationally televised event. That conundrum came into sharp focus at the 2019 contest, which ended with eight co-champions when judges failed to pick hard enough words.
Bailly said 2019 marked something of a turning point, when “the Bee got broken, in a way.”
When the competition returned to its usual venue outside the nation’s capital in 2022 – after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancellation in 2020 and a scaled-back event in 2021 – judges resorted to a heavier emphasis on defining words and a lightning-round tiebreaker that tested contestants’ ability to spell quickly, not perfectly.
“We had built to kind of a pinnacle of really, really good spellers,” Bailly said. “I think if COVID hadn’t hit, we would still see a deeper bench of the very, very top spellers. Because you know what COVID did to education and to people’s lives, and this study is intense.”
Scott Remer, who coached Shah and 28 other spellers who made the National Spelling Bee, said that while there is no completely objective way to decide a word’s difficulty, there has been controversy as the panel that chooses the Bee’s word list has increasingly picked proper names and words for which the dictionary doesn’t list an etymology. The runner-up in 2022 misspelled “Senijextee,” a rarely used variant spelling of Sinixt, an Indigenous people from what is now Washington and British Columbia.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that this is a chance to celebrate the linguistic diversity that English has,” Remer said. “To showcase all sorts of different languages, but also to celebrate the kids who understand the stems and roots, who have learned the phonetic rules, who are able to piece things together using logic and asking questions and thinking it through as opposed to it just being, ‘Have you memorized this Native American tribe?’ ”
Bailly acknowledged the limitations of the Bee’s word list, which is drawn from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary, but he said it’s the best way to keep the competition fair.
“The dictionary is constantly playing catch-up with the world,” the pronouncer said. “Clearly, the language keeps evolving, so there are going to be some cases where our source is not in step with what you know.”
Tenney Villalobos said the competition is important because it glorifies spelling in an era when spell-check features on phones and computers have made the skill less appreciated.
“I think it’s really cool that they’re doing this, because it’s helping encourage to learn how to spell, which is kind of an undervalued thing,” she said. “I think that it’s a good thing to do, because it shows professionalism to be able to spell things, and it’s very impressive.”
Singh, who studied with Remer for a few months before his first trip to the Bee, said he appreciated that coaching when he was first training, “because I had no idea where to start, but this year I remember what I learned from him, so I can use that.”
Bailly said that while the whole country seems to want just one champion, his favorite year of the Bee was 2019, when the “octochamps” shared the glory and the Scripps Cup.
“I’ve never cared about the single winner,” he said. “I think it’s kind of preposterous to think there’s a ‘best speller.’ ”
While Singh has two more years of eligibility, he said he doesn’t plan to return next year, since he doesn’t care about winning and wants to spend his time doing other things.
“I think that this is the last year I’m going to be here, maybe, and I want to see how far I can get and if I could do better than last year,” he said. “I feel like I want to try something new, like maybe the science club.”