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Spellbound 

by Leah Sottile & r & In no way do I mean to trample on the hard-earned fame of Dorothy Greenwald, Clara Mohler, Jean Trowbridge or Laurel Kuykendall, but I've got to say it: Kids today are simply smarter than they were in 1936.


How do I know? Just look at the spelling bee champions of the past -- a perfect cross-section of increased elementary intelligence. That year, Greenwald won the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee -- the largest, most lauded bee of them all -- on one word: "knack." (I'm guessing this was before the "knick knack paddy whack" song hit the airwaves.)


Mohler took the cup a few years later on an even easier word: "intelligible." Trowbridge won the following year by correctly spelling "interning." Those may seem like easy words now, but then consider that Kuykendall obliterated her competition in 1940 by correctly spelling a real stumper -- the word "therapy." Sorry, Laurel, but today you wouldn't get out of the first round.


Kids these days eat spellers like Greenwald and Trowbridge for breakfast, and use the Kuykendalls of the world to mop up with. Sometime in the late 1980s, the spellers of the world stopped relying on being able to sound words out or make a mental picture of their flashcards.


Twenty years ago or so, kids started studying the meaning of words, their origins, their Latin or Greek roots. Hell, some kids even started mastering the spelling of Italian words that have been adopted by English speakers.


Like appoggiatura. That's the word that won 13-year-old Anurag Kashyap the title at the 2005 National Spelling Bee. It's a musical term most commonly used when speaking about opera -- something most 13-year-old boys know nothing about.


But not Anurag. Nope, he even knew both the meaning and spelling of "hodiernal," "exsiccosis" and "peccavi." The first is a Latin term ("pertaining to today"); the second is the fancy word used within the medical profession to denote the state of being dehydrated; and "peccavi" refers to confessing one's sins.


I don't know about you, but when I was 13, all I knew about sin was that hitting my brother wasn't one.


Past winners have taken the cup for equally difficult words. David Tidmarsh won last year after spelling "autochthonous" (indigenous, aboriginal; referring to a location's earliest known plants or inhabitants). Jody-Anne Maxwell proved her abilities in 1998 after spelling "chiaroscurist" (a painter who uses light and shade for dramatic effect).





The National Spelling Bee -- a competition unique to the United States -- has become more and more popular. In fact, it has become one of the most popular competitions aired on ESPN and has even been the subject of the award-winning 2002 documentary Spellbound. The competition is no longer about kids who get lucky, spelling words like "Chihuahua" correctly (the word that won Jennifer Reinke the trophy in 1967). Becoming a competitor not only means years of studying and practice, but participants first must qualify in preliminary bees across the country.


That's not the case for Spokane's own spelling bee at the B-Side on Wednesday night. There are no kids in this one, no preliminary qualifications. All you have to do is shell out three bucks, then take the stage with a pint in hand and show B-Side owner Ben Cater that you don't need no stinking spell checker. If you prove yourself orthographically accomplished, it could be the one time you walk out of the B-Side with something more than a hangover. The winner takes home $200. Yep, you heard me.


Sure, it's not the $22,000 in cash, the $5,000 scholarship, the $1,000 savings bond and the complete reference library that Anurag Kashyap took home this year -- but it'll do.

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