Adults Put The 'Bee' In Orthography

Spelling bees are not just for kids, as more and more spelling bees for adults sprout up across the country. A bar in Brooklyn, New York, has been hosting one for about five years. That bee attracts people just looking for fun and those who really know their stuff.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The spelling bee: for some, a time of childhood glory - for others, not so much. Either way, adults who want to relive their youth can do so. One popular adult spelling bee lives in an unlikely place - a bar in Brooklyn. NPR's Ben Calhoun reports.

BEN CALHOUN: The back room of a Brooklyn bar named Pete's Candy Store gets quiet - Williamsburg Spelling Bee, round three. The word is ablutionary.

CHRISTINE: Ablutionary. Ablutionary.

CALHOUN: A young woman named Christine looks up at the ceiling as she rolls the word around in her head.

CHRISTINE: I'm going to guess: A-B-L-U-T-I-N - oh, (bleep).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CALHOUN: The Williamsburg Spelling Bee is one of a number of grassroots adult spelling bees that have sprouted up around the country in the last several years. Some of those have limped along or fizzled out, but patrons at Pete's Candy Store are still spelling about twice a month, and it's often standing room only. It started about five years ago in the brain of a guy named Bobby Blue.

Mr. BOBBY BLUE (Co-host, Williamsburg Spelling Bee): The light bulb moment: I was sitting in this movie theater watching Spellbound, that incredible movie documentary of the kids that are going through the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. I was just like, why don't adults do this anymore? Why did we - why is this not fun anymore?

CALHOUN: And so the Williamsburg Bee was born, where currently the prizes include $40 worth of free drinks and a sandwich. The bee draws all kinds - some people just out for fun, a few looking to avenge spelling bee losses from childhood and some people who can really spell, like Carolyn.

Ms. CAROLYN D'AQUILA (Social Worker): Carolyn D'Aquila.

CALHOUN: D'Aquila?

Ms. D'AQUILA: D'Aquila - D, apostrophe, A-Q-U-I-L-A. So my spelling skills started very early.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CALHOUN: D'Aquila went to the National Spelling Bee in the 90s and was a pronouncer at the New Hampshire State Spelling Bee for years. Recently, she became a social worker, which she says, so far, isn't paying for a lot of nights out.

Ms. D'AQUILA: Right. And there's a recession on and I just got out of school and I don't have a job. So...

CALHOUN: So she started coming to Williamsburg, where she's won several of the recent bees and lots of free drinks.

You're kind of a ringer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. D'AQUILA: It's not fair, but I never have to pay for my drinks here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CALHOUN: Williamsburg Spelling Bee co-host Jen Dziura says regulars like D'Aquila make the contest a combination of just-for-fun and real competition.

Ms. JEN DZIURA (Co-Host, Williamsburg Spelling Bee): When the spelling bee first started, I think that Bobby thought that a lot of people who would come would be very lackadaisical, that they would be drinking and they wouldn't really care if they won or lost. It's just a funny thing to do. But from the very first spelling bee, it became apparent that people who show up to a spelling bee are largely here to win.

CALHOUN: On this particular night, the competition was plenty tough, slicing through dozens and dozens of spelling words in an hour and a half.

Unidentified Man #1: All right, then. Let's go.

Unidentified Woman #1: Intercalary. Intercalary.

Unidentified Man #2: Accordate.

Unidentified Man #3: Detumescence. Detumescence.

Unidentified Woman #2: Emollient.

Unidentified Woman #3: Emollient. Okay.

Unidentified Man #4: Can you say it one more time?

Unidentified Woman #4: Sacristant.

Unidentified Woman #5: Damn it. Okay.

Unidentified Woman #6: That's it.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

CALHOUN: In the end, D'Aquila narrowly edged out an archivist from the Museum of Modern Art.

Ms. DZIURA: Carolyn.

Mr. BLUE: You're so redorkulous. Carolyn.

(Soundbite of applause)

CALHOUN: The Williamsburg Spelling Bee is currently in its 10th full season, which ends in a championship this December.

Bill Calhoun, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song, The Final Countdown)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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