What you don't expect is "floccinaucinihilipilification."
Maybe adults really aren't any smarter than fifth-graders.
Because in response to my condescending question, "What's the super-hardest spelling word you can think of?" ... first, the elementary school kids frowned at me. And then they threw "glomerulonephritis," "hemidemisemiquaver" and "pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis" right back in my face.
With the first half of this weekend's Spokane Is Spelling event looming -- the Kids' Spelling Bee, on Saturday afternoon at River Park Square -- it's clear that these kids have orthographical skills they just can't wait to display.
The youngster who cited that "pneumo- ... ultra- ..." thing? (It's a kind of lung disease, by the way.) He reports, with exquisite understatement, that "We've studied every Wednesday since the summer, and I think we're pretty much prepared."
Consider: One of the words on the Fifth Grade Core List of words (to be used this weekend, even in the adult competition's first round) is "farm." Do you actually think that Mr. Flocci ... Mopsy ... whatever is going to have any trouble spelling "farm"?
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & t the mall this Saturday, the emcees will be from KXLY's morning show and the pronouncers will be English professors from local colleges. Elementary school teams with names like the Cobras, the Dominators and the Spelling Snakes will huddle and confer before enunciating carefully into the microphone. Some teams are just groups of friends who happen to like getting together and looking up word roots just as much as they like, say, kicking around a soccer ball.
Sunday evening's adult bee at the Big Easy will be even more outlandish. There will be video cameras swinging around on a crane, zooming in on every pore of every sweaty-forehead competitor who steps up to the mike and please don't let me go out on a word like "translucent." I studied that word just last night.
Teams with names like the Bee-Bops, the BuzzKillz and the Bee-Attitudes, pads of paper in hand, will confer within their 15-second time limits, then step up and spell polysyllabic words, German compound words, words with no apparent vowels. Costumes and oddball hats will be on display. Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick , in uniform, will appear with two teammates wearing bright orange prison jammies. (They call themselves "Crime and Punishment.") From deep inside his judicial robes, Superior Court Judge Rick White will issue orthographical rulings, which will then be ignored.
The contest's spell-masters divided the list into easy/medium/difficult parts, then literally scissored the entire 350-page list into individual words, which will be drawn at random out of containers. (One local librarian is actually "in charge of containers" for this event. I'm picturing those Price Waterhouse guys at the Oscars.)
The winning threesome will earn the right to display - for a whole year! - a spelling champion trophy ("I asked them to go for the hokier side," says Sandra Kernerman, development officer of the Spokane Public Library Foundation. "Bigger and crappier").
Then, in a particularly sadistic Survivor-style twist, the trio will compete individually for a $1,000 shopping spree, dinner and a night in a hotel (the Lusso's penthouse, sweet). The two losers? They get unabridged dictionaries (just in time to start studying for next year). Everybody else gets a T-shirt.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's all Kernerman's fault. Her job is to think up new ways to make money for our libraries. Now, as she says, "Everybody loves the library, even if they don't use it." But she can't just throw another black-tie event. "Ooh, I just can't wait to come to another gala," she says, sarcastically. "Besides, on the entire calendar for next year, there's about 15 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon when there isn't a gala going on."
The SPL Foundation, by the way, can't do anything about extending library hours. But what it can do is purchase more magazines and books, so there's more for you to read when the libraries are open. And she's increased her foundation's endowment from $9,000 to $70,000 in just two years. But she wants more -- Spokane has a lot of demanding readers (and spellers). What to do?
There are plenty of kids' spelling bees, of course. (You can watch all those grimacing, concentrating kids in the national finals on ESPN now.) But spelling bees for adults are rare. What kind of response would Kernerman get when she tried recruiting adult spellers?
Potential contestants, she discovered, fell into two groups: "Some said, 'There is no way I would ever do this,' while others said, "I'm winning this. This is mine.'
"Their attitude is: Intellectuals are athletes too. Competitiveness goes past athletics. Smart people want to demonstrate what they can do. A lot of the adult spellers are remembering their glory days. They'd either say, 'I hate it,' or they'd say, "I won my spelling bee back in school.' They loved it as kids. And they have a bent toward preciseness -- they notice mistakes in the newspaper." (Not in The Inlander, of course.)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hus it was that each of the 26 three-person teams of adult spellers was provided with a three-ring binder crammed with nearly 8,000 words taken directly from the "2004 Scripps National Spelling Bee Consolidated Word List: Words Appearing Frequently."
In other words, the easy stuff. (We're not even getting into the words used with moderate or rare frequency.) And yet even in this most basic, piece-of-cake list, there are difficult words like -- and this is one of my favorites -- ... wait, I'm not going to give any advantage to my opponents.
Well, OK, here's one: "scaloppini." That's right -- my advice to the other teams is to spell it just like that: "scaloppini."
Just some friendly advice from one competitor to another.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he British don't understand why Americans get so competitive about spelling bees. (Tut, tut, good fellow, it's the sort of thing one learns in school, isn't it? Why such compulsion to make a show of piecemeal knowledge?)
Well, Mr. British Twit, as Yanks, we're dealing over here with major issues of cultural inferiority. You have Shakespeare, after all, and those Spice Girls. And you're always using words like "phthisis," just to remind us that the language is called "English" and not "Americanish."
Well, fine. But over here, we have 10-year-olds who can spell "floccinaucinihilipipification." You should look it up.
"Spokane Is Spelling" premieres with the Kids' Spelling Bee on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2-4:30 pm in the atrium at River Park Square. Free. The Adult Spelling Bee follows on Sunday, Oct. 21, 4-8 pm at the Big Easy. Tickets: $5. Visit www.spokanelibraryfdtn.org.