Spellbound

I am wholly obsessed with and terrified by spelling bees in equal measure. Obsessed in that I can’t get enough of watching or puzzling over them, turning the etymology, sounds, and letter combinations over and over in my head like David Bowie juggling the crystal ball in Labyrinth. Except with much less mesmerising skill and slightly less mullet-y hair.

I’m similarly terrified by the thought of getting up on stage and attempting to assemble and utter letters coherently in order to correctly spell something—experience has taught me that I’m an excellent on-paper speller, but a terrible, fumbling, stumbling one out loud.

I truly fear competing in on-stage spelling bees more than public speaking and death combined. But watching them, as long as I know I’m not going to be called upon to get up and participate, is another story altogether.

Spellbound the film (2002) and the annual ESPN coverage of the US national spelling bee brought many of us out of the spelling bee-loving closet and introduced many more to the competition’s magic. ESPN’s coverage, in particular, is stellar—they commentate the event as they would a gridiron or other action-packed sporting match. And who hasn’t uttered the now classic line ‘Can I have the etymology?’ after watching Spellbound?

The Emerging Writers Festival (EWF) was in town with its Digital Writers’ Conference last week. The team closed out the event with a Sunday night spelling bee at the funky, recently opened Jam Jar. Work commitments (and, if I’m honest, a healthy fear of being roped into participating) prevented me from getting down to watch some fellow writers, editors, and spelling afficionados compete, so I chatted to writer and editor Chad Parkhill to find out how it went.

How does a spelling bee work?

The spelling bee I was at—the one at the conclusion of the Brisbane Emerging Writers’ Festival—is really only loosely based on the American-style spelling bees we know from Spellbound and other documentaries/television shows.

Instead of being competitive, it’s a social thing: get a bunch of writers together in a room, add some booze and the challenge of spelling words, and have some fun. Having said that, there was one chap there who had his own spelling bee alias—I’m positive that his real name wasn’t Obadiah—and he seemed to take the whole thing rather seriously.

I can only spell something when I write it down. Is that peculiar to me or if not, how do you manage to overcome that to spell aloud?

That’s not at all peculiar! I noticed lots of the competitors and audience members spelling out the words with their fingers on tabletops and the surface of their jeans in an attempt to get it right. In order to spell aloud, I try to visualise the word printed on a piece of paper, and simply read it out from there.

Have you watched Spellbound/the annual ESPN spelling bee? If so, any pointers you picked up? Did someone ask for the etymology (in an American accent)?

Unfortunately, I haven’t watched Spellbound, but I think that’s because I have a pathological fear of watching small children being intense and dorky. It takes me back to my own days of being an intense and dorky child.

Nobody asked for the etymology of words, but many did ask for words to be used in sentences—mostly for comic effect. (Krissy Kneen, who has just published a book of literary pornography, Triptych, was called upon to use the word ‘tumescent’ in a sentence.)

One important difference between the EWF spelling bee and the American-style spelling bees is that you’re not required to start by saying the word, then spell it, then say it again—you just have to spell it. This means you don’t get a chance to correct yourself if you’ve reached the end of the word and you know you’ve stuffed it up.

Can you remember any of the words you were asked to spell (or that others were)?

My own words were ‘chameleon’, ‘vacillate’, ‘finagle’, ‘gauche’, ‘lymphatic’, and ‘plagiarise’, among others. In general, there were lots of words that everyone knows, but hardly anyone can spell—I think ‘rhythm’ is the best example of this kind of word. There were also lots of ‘trick’ words such as ‘inoculate,’ which nearly everyone thinks has two ‘n’s. (I know I would have been stumped by that one!)

Finally, there were also lots of loan words, mostly from French and German, such as ‘ennui’, ‘cliché’, and ‘doppelgänger’. I was a little disappointed that competitors weren’t asked to place the correct diacritical marks in those words—that would have made things more challenging!

What was the word that stumped you?

‘Fahrenheit’, of all things. I am actually capable of spelling it, but I’d had one too many beers—gone beyond ‘the zone’, as pool players might say—and completely forgot to say the second ‘h’. I guess I should have started by spelling it out on my jeans with a finger!

Can you remember the word that won?

The winning word was ‘synecdoche’, which the winning competitor spelled with ease. It’s supposed to be a stumper, but I think Charlie Kaufmann’s Synecdoche, New York may have had something to do with its popularisation.

Any notable words/moments worth mentioning?

The bee included ‘caesura’, which I thought was a particularly tough one. Oh, and ‘Fahrenheit’. Curse you, Fahrenheit! Your scale sucks, anyway.

Which dictionary did they use (e.g. Macquarie)? Did anyone try to sneak through with American spellings?

The dictionary was, I believe, the Macquarie. Nobody tried to use American spellings, cleaving to -ise rather than -ize.

Were there any crash study sessions/methods applied?

Certainly not on my part! I was actually a last-minute ring-in—I was there simply to catch up with a friend, but got roped in by the festival organisers. I’m glad they asked.

Any heckling? Controversy? Googling of spellings and definitions?

No, everyone was pretty well-behaved.

Hmm, methinks [read: Fi thinks] that’s very civilised!

Chad Parkhill, who was brave enough to compete, writes for Rave Magazine and The Lifted Brow.