Readers know that my first accomplishment that got notice beyond my family was my ability to win spelling bees.
For those who care, I won five school spelling bees and two Madison city spelling bees, and therefore competed in two state spelling bees. The closest I got to winning the state bee was a 10th-place finish.
Therefore I pay some attention to spelling bees, including the national spelling bee, which, like so many things in our society, has gotten sucked up by pop culture to something unrecognizable. And so Sports Illustrated writes:
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged isn’t a book so much as it is an institution. It is physically unwieldy, nearly unmanageable, with more than two thousand pages of densely packed fine print. It is culturally staggering, home to nearly half a million words—which is to say, nearly half a million fragments of collective human knowledge and imagination. It stretches from “a” to “zyzzogeton.” It is not just a catalogue of language, but an extensive manual and an exhaustive history. It is the product of more than a century of research and millions of dollars of investment. And it’s only the foundation for Merriam-Webster Unabridged, the dictionary’s official website, which has even more definitions and quotations and annotations than can be materially contained in the book.
The dictionary is unbeatable. It does not grant any space to be outsmarted or out-gamed or out-memorized. It has the first word and the final say and every single thing in between. By definition—all the definitions—it is the winner in any dispute or debate, because it’s the one body that makes them all possible. It is the “final authority and sole source” for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, per the competition’s official rules, and it is unbreakable.
Or, at least, it was. The 2019 Bee ended up with its own set of final authorities. In the most remarkable collective performance in the history of the contest, the kids simply couldn’t miss. By the 17th round of the finals, there are typically two or three spellers remaining, if a single champion hasn’t already been declared; this year, there were eight, blowing through round after round with breathtaking efficiency. It called for something unprecedented. “Champion spellers, we are now in uncharted territory,” Jacques Bailly, the bee’s pronouncer, told the tweens. “We do have plenty of words remaining on our list, but we will soon run out of words that will possibly challenge you, the most phenomenal collection of super-spellers in the history of this competition.” There would be just three more rounds, he said. Whoever was left standing would be named co-champion, no matter how many of them there might be.
By now, the rest is history. All eight made it. In 91 prior bees, Scripps had seen only a handful of co-champions—just six pairs—and it had never had so much as a three-way tie. Now, there were octo-champs: Rishik Gandhasri, 13, of California (winning word: auslaut); Erin Howard, 14, of Alabama (erysipelas); Saketh Sundar, 13, of Maryland (bougainvillea); Shruthika Padhy, 13, of New Jersey (aiguillette); Sohum Sukhatankar, 13, of Texas (pendeloque); Abhijay Kodali, 12, of Texas (palama); Christopher Serrao, 13, of New Jersey (cernuous); and Rohan Raja, 13, of Texas (odylic).
They hadn’t beaten one another. Instead, together, they’d beaten the dictionary.
It’s a feat that might have once seemed unfathomable, but in a sense, it’s de rigeur for the modern game—all sorts of games. It’s increasingly easy to diagnose weaknesses to analyze and eliminate in, well, just about everything; thank greater specialization, or additional data, or new technology, or, quite often, a mix of all three. The bee took place just a few days before the final episode aired from James Holzhauer’s 32-game Jeopardy! winning streak, which rewrote conventional strategy for the show. It happened alongside Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a league reshaped by three-point shooting revolution, and a full slate of action in MLB, which, depending on your perspective, is being transformed either by defensive shifts, tradition-defying relief management, or a fly-ball focus, if not all of the above. Across the board, fans are witnessing wild new achievements. They just might not feel like they’re watching the same sport that they were even a few years ago. Success is being redefined, but so is the context in which it can exist. This efficiency is solving these games, or it’s breaking them, or, paradoxically, it feels like it’s doing both at once.
Scripps’ wild finish doesn’t fit this model exactly—there’s plenty of room for innovation in study techniques, but students can only introduce so much new strategy to individual performances under such a controlled format—but, in a way, this only makes it more impressive. The bee didn’t seem to have as much structural space to play with, either to solve or to break. The octo-champs were good enough to find a way, anyway. (And, of course, it bears repeating: They’re in middle school.)
What happens when the dictionary loses, though? (For its part, Merriam-Webster’s Twitter declared, “The Dictionary concedes and adds that it is SO. PROUD.”) Is the bee truly broken—or, at least, the bee as we’ve known it?
“That’s the million dollar question,” says Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, who followed the bee for years for her book Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path To Success. “How is Scripps going to adjust for what happened this year? That will really dictate what the competition looks like—if they’re going to go to great lengths to make the competition harder, then I think we’ll see some recalibration back to one or two champions. But if it’s continuing at this pace, you’re going to end up with double-digit winners in the next few years.”
With this increased fire, the bee had to crown co-champions in 2014 for the first time since 1962, which might have passed for a fluke… if it hadn’t happened again in 2015, and yet again in 2016. Scripps intervened by establishing a tiebreaker test for 2017, a written exam for students to take before the final rounds in primetime, with the results opened only in the event of a tie. But it wasn’t needed in 2017 or 2018, and so for this year’s bee, Scripps decided to scrap the test. It simply took too much time from kids who were already working with tight schedules on a hectic day.
Of course, getting rid of the exam opened the bee back up to the possibility of a tie, and so the rules for this year included a provision on what to do with up to three co-champions. Eight? Not so much.
Even before the start of the primetime finals, Scripps realized that it might have history on its hands. During the afternoon, when it took an unusually long five-and-a-half hours to narrow the field from 50 to 16, the bee began to recognize the group’s “extraordinary competitive level,” says executive director Paige Kimble. Organizers drew up a contingency plan, which they refined over the course of the evening. By the time that they needed to make the call, they knew exactly what they were going to do.
It was an extreme situation. And yet, given the strength of the bee in recent years, it was one that they had previously considered, even if they hadn’t addressed it in the rulebook.
“It was something that we had, within the last year, discussed as a possibility,” Kimble says. “But without it fully manifesting, having some sort of treatment in the rules didn’t necessarily make sense to our fans or our competitors. Now that it’s manifested, maybe something will make sense.”
There’s no verdict yet on what “something,” if anything, might be; it could be possible to see a change in either the bee’s procedures or its word lists, neither of which would necessarily be unusual. The bee has “a very long history of tweaking,” Kimble notes—over the years, it’s added a countdown clock, created a written preliminary test, and, of course, established and abandoned a tiebreaker exam, to say nothing of the fact that the words themselves have gotten steadily more difficult. Compare any of this year’s final words to past winners like, say, “luge” (1984) or “therapy” (1940). Whether the bee makes an explicit procedural change or not, though, it will almost certainly feel different than it has. The octo-champs have changed the game, breaking open the idea of just who (or what) is the biggest competition for any individual speller.
“The dictionary is there,” Shankar says. “And if you can beat it, you can win.”
I suppose I should have a different attitude about this, given the awfulness of my athletic talent at that (or any other) age and the fact that spelling skills now might — might — be seen as cool, in contrast to the lack of popularity of any academic ability when I was growing up. But this does not feel like progress to me. Pushing kids to concentrate on only one activity, whether that’s one sport or one academic pursuit (complete with, apparently, spelling coaches) is not good parenting, and I doubt it really makes kids into better adults. (I am in one of the few lines of work where spelling is actually a usable skill. At least for now, spellcheck doesn’t catch correctly-spelled improperly used homophones.)