OXON HILL, MD - Words such as "protege" and "gesundheit" were quickly overshadowed by jokes about the George Foreman grill and the game Minesweeper as the onstage preliminary rounds began Wednesday morning at the 87th Scripps National Spelling Bee.
With most spellers having no trouble with their words, the focus shifted more to the laugh-out-loud sentences that have become a regular part of the Bee in recent years. When Lillian Allingham of Hockessin, Delaware, asked for a sentence for "odyssey," pronouncer Jacques Bailly made the audience chuckle by speaking of someone who "got lost in Costco for 35 minutes."
"You should give sentences more often," Isabel Cholbi of San Bernardino, California, told Bailly.
Bailly also spun a short tale of someone who put down the phone to "play Minesweeper until the yelling stopped" to help describe the word "belligerent." The word "coloratura" wound up in a sentence about someone getting their hand caught in a George Foreman grill. Another sentence opined: "To say that life will never be the same after kindergarten graduation is hyperbole."
It got to the point where spellers were disappointed to receive a word without a punch-line sentence.
"I only want a sentence if it's funny," Victoria Allen of Green River, Wyoming, said upon getting the word "salaam."
"Well," Bailly replied, looking at his computerized notes. "I don't think I have one."
"Shame," said Victoria, who then spelled the word correctly.
Each speller had a chance to earn points by spelling up to two words onstage during the preliminaries. The scores will be combined with a computerized spelling and vocabulary test taken Tuesday to determine who advances to the semifinals Thursday.
The finals take place Thursday night. The winner gets more than $33,000 in cash and prizes.
The spellers were 41 for 41 until the telltale bell sounded for the first time, when Amy Maldonado of Naples, Florida, was eliminated on "keeshond" (a Dutch dog breed). Amy misspelled it "kaushaund" and was ushered to the comfort area offstage. Only 24 of the 281 spellers failed to advance to the next round.
There were also signs of nerves and lucky guesses. Speller No. 9, Eesha Sohail of Bakersfield, California, looked stunned when she correctly spelled "tchotchke" (a trinket) and received a high-five from another speller when she returned to her seat.
Among the favorites was Sriram Hathwar, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Corning, New York, who placed third last year and is back for his fifth and final time.
Sriram gave a warm "Hello Dr. Bailly and friends" as he arrived at the microphone and dispatched the proper noun "Backstein," a German cheese.
Another top contender, 12-year-old Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas, looked right at home onstage as she spelled "ephemeral." Vanya tied for fifth last year and is competing for the fourth time. Her sister, Kavya, won in 2009.
The other finalist from last year, 13-year-old Syamantak Payra of Friendswood, Texas, had no problem with "pasteurize." Syamantak tied for seventh in 2013.