Friday, June 02, 2006

Other Sports

Congratulations to Katharine Klose from Spring Lake, New Jersey, who won last night's National Spelling Bee with the word "ursprache." I have no shame in admitting that I couldn't have spelled it correctly, much less live on national television.

When one of the final two contestants misspells a word, her opponent must correctly spell the next two words in order to win. Katharine had no trouble with the first of these, "kundalini"; but when the judge read "ursprache," the audience gasped. She nailed it anyway.

I've heard it suggested that a spelling bee is a waste of time. That's nonsense. First, these kids are building their vocabularies, and you can't put a price on that. More often than not, we judge a person's intellect on whether he's well-spoken. True, you'd hope that Katharine won't be using "ursprache" in casual conversation; but sometimes you push the upper limits to secure the fundamentals.

Second, these kids are learning to solve problems. They're learning detective skills, albeit in an etymological context. When they ask for a word's origin or definition, they're not stalling for time. They use those clues to deduce the spelling. If you can't see the benefit in that, I pity your children.

Having said all that, I have one criticism. The runner-up — a 14-year-old girl who correctly spelled dasyphyllous, machicotage, esquisse, maieutic, poiesis, tutoyer, and koine, all of which would have stumped me — lives in Alberta, Canada. According to the rules, our National Spelling Bee is open to "English-speaking populations around the world."


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