Choosing Words for the National Spelling Bee

The champion of the 78th Annual Scripp's Spelling Bee will be crowned Thursday. We take a look at how the words are chosen.

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Standing on a stage and pronouncing strange words can be downright emetic. That means it can make you want to throw up. Seventh-grader Dominic Ranz Errazo admitted he was nervous but he managed to spell emetic correctly at the Scripps National Spelling Bee held in Washington, DC, this week. Out of a field of 273 contestants, one clever kid will emerge as the winner today. With all the obscure words in the dictionary to choose from, we wondered how the competition's organizers decide which words to use, so we asked the competition's official pronouncer, Jacques Bailey.

Mr. JACQUES BAILEY (Official Pronouncer, Scripps National Spelling Bee): One category that's near and dear to my heart that I do is called English, Greek and Latin.

MONTAGNE: That set is made up of English words derived from each language. For example, the Greek-derived word kronos.

Mr. BAILEY: And alongside of that, you've got a Latin-derived word meaning time like tempest, temptress or temporal, contemporary, contemporaneous. I really love that category because it illustrates something about the English language and it leads the kids just by learning these 150 words to think about what's going on in English and why that might be so.

MONTAGNE: Other words are chosen individually. A panel of wordsmiths began digging immediately after last year's Bee for this year's list. Jacques Bailey says figuring out how to rate the words poses a challenge.

Mr. BAILEY: Everybody in the room at our editing meetings gives a rating from one to five of how we think the word compares with the other words that we're working on. And sometimes I'll say, `One,' and somebody else will say, `Five.' That's pretty rare, and that leads to a rating. It's not perfect.

MONTAGNE: The level of difficulty, of course, is relative. A piano player will have an easier time probably with musical terms than someone who plays tennis.

Mr. BAILEY: My ideal word is a word that parents and the viewers on TV who watch the Bee will say, `Oh, that's a great word. I'm going to add that to my vocabulary.' That's the ideal word.

MONTAGNE: Jacques Bailey is the official pronouncer at the 78th annual Scripps Spelling Bee. A champion will be crowned later today.

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