My Favorite Word: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis – the Latin or Medical term for the lung condition a.k.a. “Black Lung” most commonly associated with coal miners. It also happens to be the longest word in the English language.

That mouthful of a word (please do not even attempt to pronounce this as you will only embarrass yourself) was the zinger that a 14-year old Spelling Bee girl gave me to try to spell correctly at yesterday’s 80th Annual Scripts National Spelling Bee. Suffice it to say… I struggled.

Little wordsmith geniuses came from all over the country – and Canada – to Washington this week to determine the Master Speller. They began with 286 contenders on Wednesday of which 59 remained by Thursday morning. Only 15 took the stage in last night’s final rounds. And one was crowned king – Evan O’Dorney, a homeschooler from California.

O’Dorney correctly spelled “Serrefine” to beat out Canadian whiz Nate Gartke in the final showdown. And the best part of it all – O’Dorney admitted that he doesn’t really even like spelling that much because he prefers math (his first love) and music (he’s a concert pianist).

Here were the words that made it into the final round between O’Dorney and Gartke respectively:

Zoilus, Vituline, Pappardelle, Videlicet, Yosenabe, Coryza (misspelled) and Serrefine.

I can only spell one of those words correctly – Pappardelle – and that’s on account of my love of pasta rather than my three-and-half-decade old vocabulary.

For anyone who thinks the National Spelling Bee isn’t worthy of a prime-time national audience… For anyone who thinks the National Spelling Bee is nothing more than a bunch of geeky, boring, smart kids… And for anyone who thinks the Super Bowl is more exciting that watching the National Spelling Bee… I got news for you: The National Spelling Bee is the most exciting event I have been to in years.

First off, let’s get something straight: this is not a simple game of Scrabble with your family. There is enormous pressure put on these kids in front of the bright lights and big audience to basically do something that most of cannot. If we could, we wouldn’t have a need for the “spell-check” feature on our computers – my most frequently used tool.

I sat just feet from contestants who stood at the microphone drawing a blank not knowing a word and many times never having seen or heard it in the countless thousands of hours spent memorizing dictionaries.

One such contestant, Sameer Mishra, who I thought might go the distance but came up short on “myoclonos,” told me about that terrifying moment of darkness:
“First you hear the word and then you feel the big impact of not knowing the word, and you’re like ‘OH SNAP’ – You don’t know the word!”

Actually watching the kids working their way through the challenge (while all of us in the audience are jumping out of our skin with nervousness and tension) is an amazing thing. They seek the origin of language, ask for definitions and alternate definitions, ask for the word to be used in a sentence and if there are multiple pronunciations. And when they spell it correctly after the cliffhanging eternity of 90 seconds, it is an A-W-E-S-O-M-E sight.
Perhaps my favorite irony of the Bee is that no one actually knows why we call it a “Spelling Bee.” There is no known official origin and the National Spelling Bee Guide discloses this interesting tidbit:

“One of those language puzzles that has never been satisfactorily accounted for” is how they put it. Although there is an acknowledgement that it refers to a community social gathering in which friends and family gather for a single activity. The similarity to a beehive community seems to be secondary but obvious.

So if you missed your chance to watch this year – take my word for it and don’t miss it next year. It’s worthy of your time and you won’t be disappointed.

And by the way, FOX News had the Spelling Champ O’Dorney on the air today. Want to know what he did to show off…

Spell difficult words? Solve daunting math problems? Play piano concertos?

Nope. He juggled balls in the air perfectly on live television!