Young contestants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee launched two days of competition on Wednesday, facing the new challenge of not only having to spell obscure words correctly, but also knowing what they mean.
A total of 281 spellers aged 8 to 14 from across the United States and foreign countries were to take to the stage for a preliminary round on their knowledge of English words. The finals are on Thursday night.
For the first time since it began in 1927, the contest is requiring young spellers in preliminary and semifinal rounds to take a vocabulary test. Organizers say it is part of the Bee's commitment to deepening contestants' command of English.
Eight spellers from the first round of 140 contestants were eliminated. They stumbled on such words as "sinecure," a paid job with little work; "weissnichtwo," an imaginary place; and "commissar," a Russian official.
Alexis Condon, 11, a sixth grader at The Edgartown School, in Edgartown, Massachusetts, misspelled "asana," a yoga position, and said she'd been suffering from a cold.
"I just don't really feel well," she said afterward.
Almost all the contestants asked for the origin of the word, the kind of word and a definition, which is allowed as an aid to spelling. They then wrote it out on the palm of their hands with a fingertip while spelling aloud.
Since 2002, a written or computer spelling test has been a component that, along with onstage spelling, factored in determining which spellers advanced to the semi-finals.
This year, competitors will advance to the semi-finals and finals based on their onstage spelling, as well as computer-based spelling and vocabulary questions. Vocabulary evaluation will count for half of a speller's overall score.
"IT WAS FUN"
Contestants said the multiple-choice test taken on Tuesday was fairly easy for them. Amber Born, 14, a home-schooled eighth grader from Marblehead, Massachusetts, said after the first round of spelling that it "was good, it was fun."
Standing next to Born, Katherine Wang, an 11-year-old sixth grader from the Qooco School in Beijing, called it "nerve-wracking."
"It was multiple choice, so you could narrow it down," Born said. She and Wang had met at last year's contest and stayed in touch through e-mail.
Condon said words on the vocabulary test "were like medium easy, a few were pretty hard. It didn't take that long for me."
The contestants hail from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and Defense Department schools around the world. Some contestants come from the Bahamas, Canada, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.
The Bee is taking place at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center outside Washington.
The competition is being broadcast by ESPN.
The contestants range from third to eighth graders, with 116 speaking more than one language. The group is 52 percent girls and 48 percent boys, organizers said.
Among this year's field, math is most often cited as a favorite subject.
Two spellers have siblings who won the national title. Vanya Shivashankar, 11, of Olathe, Kansas, last year's 10th-place finisher, is following her sister Kavya, who won in 2009.
Ashwin Veeramani, 13, of Cleveland, hopes to follow in the footsteps of his sister Anamika, the 2010 champion.
Last year's winner was Snigdha Nandipati, a San Diego eighth-grader. Since 1999, 10 of the 14 winners have been Americans of Indian descent, including the last five.