It helps to think of the English language as a horse. Even with all the tools we have to harness and tame it—usage dictionaries, manuals of style, thesauruses—it often manages to buck us off and run wild. You’d think it would be easier. Words fill up the space around you, they cover surfaces and fill pages, they infiltrate your life. But it never seems as though we have full control over their eccentricities.
For many, the National Spelling Bee is the ultimate field of battle, upon which man (well, children no more advanced than eighth grade) is pitted against the language-monster it has created. Those of us who are enthusiasts of spelling bees relish the tenuous nature of it all. Every spring at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., spellers take turns standing in front of a microphone, trying to pluck a spoken word out of the air and make it tangible by selecting from the twenty-six letters in our language and arranging them in a precise order. Watching the bee on television, you can see kids essentially become possessed by a word; they say it, they rinse it around their mouth, they try to draw it in the air with their finger. It is all to conquer the word, to unlock its secret and step grandly upon its slain form in victory. People have fainted in the attempt.
If you were to picture the person who pronounces those words, Jacques Bailly might well be the man your mind comes up with. When I met him in his gabled office in the classics department building at the University of Vermont, he was wearing glasses and a Merriam-Webster baseball cap. Every surface was covered in papers or books—we moved a pile from a chair so I could sit down and shifted other items around so we could squeeze my travel Scrabble game onto a flat plane. We played as we talked. Dr. Bailly was mild-mannered, like a superhero, and gave the impression of a child prodigy all grown up.
I. “THE POOR KID FROM ILLINOIS WHO’S NEVER SEEN NOR HEARD OF A MUUMUU HAS NO CHANCE.”
[We draw tiles from the bag to see who goes first; it’s me.]
THE BELIEVER: So how does one become the official pronouncer for the National Spelling Bee?
JACQUES BAILLY: You just have to be lucky. I became the pronouncer by being the associate pronouncer for ten or eleven years, and I became associate pronouncer by writing to them and saying,“I won the bee in 1980.You may not remember me, but since then, I’ve learned Latin and Greek and a lot more French and German and a little bit of Arabic, and you might want someone on your staff who has that knowledge. If you do, I’m here and I’m interested.” [I open the Scrabble game with “winged,” which earns me twelve points.]
BLVR: Do you find the level of competition has changed since you competed?
JB: That’s kind of hard to say. I think it’s a problem with the accuracy of my perceptions. Teaching, I hear a lot of things like, “Kids can’t spell anymore” or “In my time, we knew the difference between ‘there,’ ‘their,’ and ‘they’re,’ and ‘to’ and ‘too,’ and now kids don’t, even when they get to college.” But in the end, it’s like one of those Escher paintings where it looks like the staircase is always going down but it never really can go down. It’s got to be something like that, because I don’t feel like we’re in a period of massive national decline. I think that the spelling bee itself is probably more competitive, although the word lists aren’t any harder. They did get much harder. By about ’90–’91, they were impossibly difficult.
BLVR: In terms of the lengths of the words or the obscure origin?
JB: Well, length isn’t really a factor in spelling a word. You throw me a thirty-letter word and I can spell it with just about as much ease as a ten-letter word or a five-letter word. The real problem in spelling bees is making them gradually more difficult. Here, let me give you a little spelling test. Spell the word “geeldikkop.” It’s from Afrikaans. It’s a South African sheep disease. You want to take a stab?
BLVR: Say it again?
BLVR: It sounds like a woman’s name. G-a-l-e-d-i-tk-o-p?
JB: No, it’s g-e-e-l-d-i-k-k-o-p. Did you have any clue beforehand?
JB: You can’t have any clue, you’ve never heard of the word, nobody’s ever heard of the word. Nobody ever uses the word. That was a word in the bee. As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of words in spelling bees. There’s the kind of word that you know if you’ve seen it because it’s weird—you know the word ‘muumuu’?
BLVR: Sure. M-u-u-m-u-u.
JB: Yeah. Do you think you could spell that if you had never seen it?
BLVR: Probably not.
JB: If you knew something about Hawaiian words, you’d probably have a good chance. A really good spelling champion will look at all the Hawaiian words together and will figure out that there’s only a certain number of sounds, there’s only a certain way to spell each sound, and that it’s really not that hard. But isolated Hawaiian words in the language are very hard for the ordinary person. The poor kid from Illinois who’s in the eighth grade who’s never seen nor heard of a muumuu has no chance. If I give that same kid a word like, I don’t know, “noosphere,” that kid has an excellent chance, because they can ask a few questions, they can root around and figure out that it’s n-o-o-s-p-h-er-e because the ‘n-o’ is like in ‘noetic,’ which maybe they know from some spelling list. And ‘sphere’—you can figure that out.They’re both from the Greek, there’s gonna be an ‘o’ in the middle. It’s a system. You can learn that system, you can manipulate it, you can understand it.
[Dr. Bailly plays “aired,” running vertical to meet the end of my word. He calls it “not a very good one.”]
BLVR: Do you have a favorite word?
JB: A favorite word. Ever since I’ve been a child, this question—what’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite… whatever? Sometimes I do have an answer. I don’t know. Favorite word.There’s a favorite kind of word. I like words, for spelling bees, that a kid’ll hear and say, “Okay, that’s kinda like this word and kinda like that word.” I like words that are not technical, one-off words that they’ll probably never run into in their life. I mean, how many times have you ever seen a ronquil?
BLVR: Only two or three times.
JB: Really? I mean, ronquil. It’s a kind of fish. Who doesn’t know “ronquil”? Well, I could care less about ronquils. There are lots of bullfighting terms in the spelling bee. Now, I personally think that bullfighting words are among the most useless words in the English language. And heraldic words are equally useless. I love heraldry; I think heraldry’s great fun. Bullfighting I could care less about. The point is, my favorite words are the words you’re liable to see again. Gullible. Loquacious. Logorrhea.
JB: Oleaginous. My favorite words tend to be the Greek and Latin ones because I think that the kids who learn those learn a lot more than just that one word.
II. “I HAVE WON THE SPELLING BEE, SO HOWEVER I SPELL A WORD NOW IS CORRECT.
[Dr. Bailly strategically places three letters on the board, conveniently located on a triple word score, which earns him thirty-two points.]
BLVR:There are musicians who, after they learn theory, can’t listen to music for pleasure. Has being immersed in this spelling culture changed the way you see language at all?
JB: Oh yeah, I don’t care about spelling as much anymore. I really don’t. I always tell this story about a good friend of mine in college. We both took this art history class, and he just loved art. We would talk about art all the time, and he was an artist—he painted and knew a lot about art. And I didn’t know anything about it. I’d been to museums, but my idea of a museum when I was little was, “Let’s go count how many clocks there are ’cause this is so damn boring.” I really felt like he taught me about art in that class. When it came down to looking at our grades, I had an A and he had a B minus. I’d read his papers and I thought that they were very good. But he couldn’t spell at all. So I think that what happened was, when the T.A. or professor read his paper, they kept seeing these misspelled words and thinking, “This kid’s stupid! This kid can’t spell! Stupid!” He wasn’t in control of that perception of himself.
BLVR: So the communication of his ideas was bogged down by his inability to spell?
JB: I think that was the root of it, because he knew a lot more about art than I ever did. In some sense, I find it less important, but I’m also realistic about its importance. It’s just like dialect—you don’t want to let people form their own mistaken opinions about you if you can help it. Spelling correctly is one way to help it. You don’t want to give away that you use “ain’t” and “like” and “gonna” all the time if you’re going on a job interview. You want to control that. When you get the job, you might just go back to your normal persona and say “ain’t,” “gonna,” and “like,” but you want to control how other people perceive you. I think spelling really helps that, because your written language is how you come through. Anyone can use spell check and look up words and get them all right, theoretically. But if you have to think about that too much, you don’t think about the other things that are a lot more important, like the content.
BLVR: So it’s more that a weakness in spelling masks what someone is trying to say, rather than misspelling actually being a sign of failure?
JB: There’s an intelligence to creative spelling. If I weren’t the official pronouncer at the National Spelling Bee, I might join that Simplified Spelling Society that’s trying to reform English spelling. Just for a lark, because I think they have a point. I’m not gonna join it because it’s a hopeless point; they’re never gonna get through. But it really would be nice if the technology of our language were simpler to use, if spelling accurately reflected pronunciation. It would be more user-friendly, and I think we’d be a better society for it. I’m learning Chinese now, and I don’t understand why they haven’t just tossed their characters and tossed Pinyin and figured out a really coherent, consistent, accurate way to represent their language. I know the answer: it’s because of tradition. It’s because they like those characters. I love the characters; they’re so much fun. They’re damnably hard. It would just make a lot of sense to simplify it. After I won the spelling bee, I started saying, “I have spelling license.” Any time I misspelled a word, I said I had spelling license.“I have won the spelling bee, so however I spell a word now is correct.” It was a joke at the time and I don’t mean it seriously, but I do think that it’s given me a perspective that spelling has a real importance. It’s not just a stupid human trick.
BLVR: Do you see correct spelling as a measure of intelligence at all, or is it just a measure of being able to perform this specific skill?
JB:That’s kind of a difficult one. I think that it is a particular type of intelligence, but I don’t think of intelligence as one coherent thing that is always together and always the same. It’s pretty clear to me that there is such a thing as areas of intelligence, and those are parts of what comes together as the things you can do with your mind, which, taken in aggregate, give you something you can measure. I do believe that SATs and all those intelligence tests are measuring something. I just don’t think that it’s a something that is crisply defined. I haven’t seen somebody—any of these kids—who I don’t think is intelligent. But if you look at their records, it’s not as though winning the spelling bee tells you that they’re going to go to Caltech, Harvard, MIT, or what have you. They’ll probably go to a good college—they’re likely to.
BLVR: It could also say something about their drive to—
JB: Yeah, there’s a lot of that, too. I had a cousin who got all A’s in school, but it wasn’t just because she was intelligent. It’s because she wanted to. I know people who get all A’s in school and they don’t even try. Intelligence is a slippery thing. It’s not like winning the spelling bee means that you are going to go far in math, or you are going to be excellent at learning a foreign language or some skill that could really get you far in life. Knowing how to spell will get you a very good secretarial position. The president doesn’t need to know how to spell. As Dan Quayle showed, you can have a very high office and not know how to spell. Spelling is a weird skill.
[Dr. Bailly puts a ‘ch’ in front of ‘aired,’ which earns him twenty-six points because of a double word score.]
III. “THE SPELLING BEE IS LIKE CARROT CAKE.”
BLVR: What effect do you think the ESPN broadcast has had on the bee?
JB: It adds to the tension, but the kids love it.They are counting the seconds ’til they know they’ll be on the broadcast. They know exactly when that broadcast starts and they know whether they have a chance of getting on it and they love that. I don’t know of any kid who’s said,“Oh my god, I just can’t stand the pressure of being on TV.” It is a very funny combo. I always tell my students,“Hey, I’m on ESPN this weekend.”
BLVR: I noticed they allowed the home-schooled kids to name their “schools” on the ESPN broadcast.
BLVR:Yeah, the boy who finished third last year apparently attended “The Pure Brains Academy.”
JB: [Laughs] Well, you know, the spelling bee is just tailor-made for home schoolers.You’re sitting at home trying to figure out a way to get your kid to learn all this language—the spelling bee is like a carrot. It’s like a carrot cake.You know,“Hey, at the end of the year, we get to go to this contest with all these other kids.”There’s studying material on the web that they can use. I’m really surprised they don’t do better than they do.
[Dr. Bailly is pondering his next move, muttering the curse of every Scrabble player:“I have great letters, but nowhere to put them.”]
BLVR: Has the documentary Spellbound hindered or helped the bee’s image?
JB: Oh, Spellbound has been great. It’s a better movie than we could ever possibly produce for ourselves. It presents, I think, lots of truths about the bee. One big thing is just how incredibly diverse the bee is, and it might be because you have 250 newspapers who have 250 different publics and you tend to get a little bit of this, a little bit of that. But you go to that bee and there in those photos, you see every different stripe and spot and hairstyle and what-have-you. It’s really kind of inspiring.
BLVR: I think my favorite fact from Spellbound is that Neil’s grandfather in India would have fed, like, five thousand people if Neil had won the bee.
JB: Oh, he would have! I had a friend and her father— I think he was a doctor or something—once a year, they went out and fed the whole village. And it’s literally, you know, a thousand people. I believe he would have done that. The sub-continental Indian community in the U.S. is very active in spelling bees. They have their own spelling bee, just for that community.
BLVR: Really? In English?
JB: Yeah. They’re disproportionately represented. I haven’t really checked it and nobody keeps those figures, but we see a lot of the really, really good spellers from India.
BLVR: Do you think a lot of people see the spelling bee as some fulfillment of the American Dream?
JB: I think they do, they start to. I mean, it’s pretty clear that a degree from Yale is a little bit more of a fulfillment of that. Or, you know, a job. But by eighth grade, that’s what their kids can do. And it’s on a national scale in their new country. You see an awful lot of kids whose parents are immigrants and I think it gives them an edge because they still have that contact with another language, and I think that really helps, because it’s all about language and all about broadening your view of language. That’s how you win the spelling bee, unless you have a photographic memory, and then you just have to picture it.We had one kid who did that. He got a word and then he missed it, and he insisted it wasn’t in the dictionary. Paige took him and showed him that it was in the addenda, and he said,“Oh. There’s an addenda?” And he had memorized the whole dictionary—he quoted back to us passages from the dictionary. He had it all memorized.
BLVR: Wow. I can’t even fathom being able to do that.
JB: Yeah. Being able to look it up, in your head? And in theory, we all could do that, because—don’t you ever have these flashes of memory, where you remember something you didn’t think you remembered? It’s all in your head somewhere. How do you get to it?
[At this point, Dr. Bailly notices that I’ve played ‘revile,’ though I hadn’t written down the score. It is thirteen points.]
IV. “‘FAHRVERGNUGEN’ IS NOT A HARD WORD TO SPELL.”
BLVR: The thing that I identify the spelling bee with most closely in my mind is Miss America.There’s something about both of them that seems unique to this country. Do you see that at all?
JB: I do see it in the sense that deciding who the most beautiful person is, or the most accomplished, is really kind of an artificial, strange enterprise that you can’t do. But it’s interesting. Spelling bees are strange, because if we really wanted to find the best speller, we’d sit them all down and give them a hundred-word written test, and the kid who missed the least words would be the champion. It’d be very simple and very easy. But we don’t want necessarily the best speller.They want a kid who can stand up there in front of everybody, keep their cool, and spell it right.We want there to be luck in it, we want there to be drama, and it’s just a lot more fun to have it as a spelling bee.
BLVR:Are there spelling bees in other countries?
JB: No. Not even in Britain.Although the BBC is running a spelling bee and I think they’re gonna send someone to Washington this year.The British have kept up a tradition of aristocratic spelling, which holds that there are certain accepted ways to spell a word instead of just one.There are certain accepted ways that betray education.And there are ways that betray lack of education. Noah Webster wasn’t the one who codified a standard way of spelling, but he did a lot for that in the U.S. Before that—there were dictionaries, and there was a big effort at standardizing spelling. I think the U.S. really glommed onto this notion of standardized spelling because it’s terribly democratic. There’s only one way to spell a word and everybody spells it the same way.
[I put down “jaunt.” Fourteen points.]
JB: Jaunt. Nice word.“Jaunty” is a word, isn’t it?
[He uses it to attach to another word he’s spelled ending in ‘y’, gaining him twenty-four points. I counter meekly with a seven-pointer.]
JB: And also, the word “bee” was first used in that sense in 1876. Before that, there had been quilting and sewing and other sorts of bees that were community efforts to do something. No other language that I know of has a spelling bee per se. England could. Spanish speaking nations could not. France could not. Germany could not. Because you just don’t misspell words in German. They are very easy to spell. If you know German, you hear a word and you know how to spell it. “Fahrvergnugen” is not a hard word to spell in German. It’s only hard because we don’t speak enough German to recognize that system. In France, you couldn’t have a spelling bee because it’s obvious how to spell a word. It’s not obvious how to end the word in French. So you have a big national dictée and people who get only ten errors are just wonderful. Do you know about this?
JB: They dictate a paragraph or a page of prose and you write it down. It’s just, you know, you write that down word-for-word and the declension and conjugation of the words is quite difficult, whether there’s apostrophes or silent letters and such. It sounds like spelling, but it’s not because it changes in form. Spelling bees don’t really get into that much; every once in a while, we’ll have a word like “agenda,” which is technically a plural, but in English, it’s used as a singular. So you just couldn’t have a spelling bee in another language.
[Dr. Bailly easily bested me in Scrabble, by the way, 313–258. His victory was not in spelling difficult, obscure words; rather, he merely took advantage of the double and triple word scores I left open to him.]