Inside the National Spelling Bee: Dissecting the winning words

Posted at 5:33 PM, Jun 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-01 17:33:19-04

At the National Spelling Bee, kids come from all over the country to spell words that find their roots all over the world.

It doesn't matter if you're in kindergarten, like first-timer Edith Fuller or 8th Grade, like competition veteran Tejas Muthusamy, asking for a word's derivation is elementary to contestants here.

And whatever Dr. Jacques Bailly's answer is Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, some mix of any of them, or even the dreaded "unknown origin," the kids will use that information to help guide them forward.

"I ask the questions really for two reasons. One to either ensure that I really know the word or try and figure out the word if i don't know the word. And [two,] to just calm myself down," said Muthusamy, who is competing in his 4th Bee. He finished in 7th place in 2015.

Simone Kaplan, an 11-year-old from Florida making her debut this year, broke it down further, using fibula, her own word from Wednesday, as an example.

"If it's Greek, then you use the 'P-H.' But in the case of fibula, which is Latin, you use the 'F,'" Kaplan said. "There are some spellers that find some languages easier. For me, Spanish is my friend, German is not my friend."

Last year's co-champions, Nihar Janga and Jiaram Hathwar, say asking for the definition may matter even more.

"The time I thought it was another word and I was about to spell it but I asked the whole definition and then I figured out, 'oh wait, it's not this word,' so then I think [asking for the] definition would be the best," Janga said.

"I always pay attention to the definitions and to the language of origin because you can't necessarily memorize all the words in the dictionary," said Hathwar.

There 490,000 words in the English language to be exact. That's way more than the 30,000 to 40,000 words adults with good vocabularies tend to know.  

"Frequently, the winning word is a word that's been hiding in plain sight, that's been sitting in our dictionary for decades or generations or even centuries, but it's not a common word, it's not one that's used by everybody everyday," said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large with Merriam-Webster.

As the winning words seem to get more difficult and obscure every year, Hathwar has some advice.

"I'd say don't think about what's going to happen next, just focus on the present. Don't try to get ahead of yourself, ask all the things you can and take your time," he said.

And Simone Kaplan isn't forgetting the most important thing about the competition: having fun.

"I've been making so many new friends, people are so nice and i feel like champion already," she said.