Diversions

ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Get ready to feel inadequate. Today in Washington, the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee begins. Two hundred and eighty-six young competitors will attempt to spell words as simple as ace, and as difficult as zinciferous.

COHEN: Z-I, eh, let's not got there. Okay, so the woman behind those word choices is Carolyn Andrews. She's the bee's word list manager. That means she is one of just three people who get to pick the words the kids are asked to spell. I spoke with her earlier and asked how she wound up in her current J-O-B.

Ms. CAROLYN ANDREWS (Word List Manager, 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee): My son got me a job. My son was the 1994 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion and I was his coach. And as part of his prizes, we went to Disneyworld on a private jet with the director of the spelling bee. The director learned that I had been an English teacher and a technical editor. And it just so happened that they were in need of an extra pair of hands at the bee. So I was asked to come on as an educational consultant. And one thing led to another. And in 1998, I became the wordlist manager.

COHEN: So how do you find words that wind up in the Bee?

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, the word panel is at work all year long, identifying words that they think are, quote, "good Spelling Bee words," and we might hear one on the radio. We might read one in a novel that we're reading or a magazine that we're reading at the time. And then for the words that we really need to start winnowing down the field of competitors, we really have to dig hard, sometimes into the dictionary to find them, because they are not words that one is going to run across very frequently.

COHEN: What makes for a good spelling bee word?

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, my favorite words are eponyms. And eponyms are words that are based on names, like a very simple one is sandwich, based on the Earl of Sandwich. But they get much more difficult, like malapropism. That's the name of a character in a play, a character who misuses words, Ms. Malaprop. So they're my favorites. But I would say that prefix and suffixes and combining forms, knowing their spellings and meanings, and then also knowing the spelling patterns of various foreign languages is very helpful.

COHEN: What was the most surprising place that you ever discovered a word and thought, ooh, this is going to be a really good bee word.

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, I am on many mailing lists for catalogues. And I love looking at the products and seeing how they're described. And I knew this word already but when I saw it, I said to myself, that's a wonderful spelling bee word. And you know, the little miniature hinged boxes, Limoges, French word Limoges, and so actually that was a word in the bee one year as a result of my having seen it and jotted it down.

COHEN: Limoges. I'm going to go out on a limb here, Carolyn. Is that L-I-M-O-G-E?

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, it has a final S as well.

COHEN: Oh, I was so close.

Ms. ANDREWS: It was close. You did very well.

COHEN: I was very close, thank you. Thank you.

Some contestants might say that two words in the same round aren't equally difficult. What's your response?

Ms. ANDREWS: I'd say they're absolutely right. And I think this depends on one's experience and where one might happen to fortunately be at one time. For example, many of the good spelling bee words are food words. And spellers who have had the advantage of going out to eat at a lot of restaurants, you know, they're word people, they look at the menus and hopefully the words are correctly spelled, so they're exposed to a lot of words that others spellers who don't have this opportunities might have. We have a lot of spellers who are musicians and so they know a lot of musical terms that other spellers might not know. So call it luck, call it experience, whatever. But a speller who has not had that experience will view that word as more difficult to spell.

COHEN: Last year, at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, there were two very tough words at the very end. Can you tell us what those words were and how you picked them?

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, they were both of German origin. The word that was misspelled and then the final speller went on to spell another word plus one more, but the one that was misspelled was Weltschmerz.

COHEN: Would you do the honors of spelling it?

Ms. ANDREWS: W-E-L-T-S-C-H-M-E-R-Z.

COHEN: And the winning word?

Ms. ANDREWS: The winning word was ursprache

COHEN: Oh, yeah, I'm going to make you spell it, Carolyn.

Ms. ANDREWS: U-R-S-P-R-A-C-H-E. Alex, hold on, I'm going to check this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: You're not sure?

Ms. ANDREWS: Well, I mean, I'm not writing it down. And I'm much better at writing down than doing it in the air.

COHEN: That's Carolyn Andrews, word list manager for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The bee kicks off today in Washington and you can watch the finals tomorrow night on ABC.

And yes, Carolyn's spelling of last year's winning word, ursprache, was indeed correct. But we wanted to know how someone outside the rarified air of the National Spelling Bee might fare with the words. So we called up the guy who may be, at least according to his editor, the worst speller at DAY TO DAY.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

MIKE PESCA: Hello?

COHEN: Mike Pesca?

PESCA: Yeah.

COHEN: It's Alex Cohen. How are you?

PESCA: Hey.

COHEN: Do you have a second? Can I put you on the spot for a moment?

PESCA: Yeah.

COHEN: We're doing a little thing on the Scripps Spelling Bee.

PESCA: Oh no. I'm the worst speller.

COHEN: Will you give it a shot?

PESCA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure.

COHEN: Okay. You ready?

PESCA: Yeah.

COHEN: Ursprache. Ursprache is a language that is a recorded or hypothetical ancestor of another language or group of languages. Ursprache.

PESCA: Are there any alternate pronunciations?

COHEN: No other pronunciations. Ursprache. And no typing. If you're typing too, you're busted.

PESCA: Okay.

COHEN: If we hear it...

PESCA: Yeah.

COHEN: Okay.

PESCA: Does it come from the prefix er-, meaning the earliest?

COHEN: You can stall as long as you like, but you're going to have to...

PESCA: Well, you're allowed asked all these questions. I'm a big spelling bee aficionado. Aficionado.

COHEN: Yes, yes, yes. I believe it is.

PESCA: A-F-F-I, okay, you're ready. Ursprache?

COHEN: Uh-huh.

PESCA: I'll give it a shot.

COHEN: Okay.

PESCA: Ursprache, Ursprache, U-R-S-P-R-A-C-H-E. Ursprache.

COHEN: Nicely done, Mr. Pesca.

PESCA: No, did I get it?

COHEN: You did, you got it.

PESCA: Wow.

COHEN: Congratulations.

PESCA: The only thing I've ever spelled right in my life.

COHEN: Yes. Your editor tells us much the same.

PESCA: But you should know, I was trying to spell melon. That's how bad a speller I am.

COHEN: Excellent, Mike. Thank you so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: That's NPR's Mike Pesca, reporter and speller extraordinaire.

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