OXON HILL, MD - The nation's finest spellers for the first time this year are being tested on the meaning of words such as "circumlunar" and "bric-a-brac" while still facing challenging tongue-twisters like the capital city of Burkina Faso: Ouagadougou.
Annie Schnoll, 14, of Chicago, and Rebecca Lisk, 13, of Caledonia, Ill., were settled into soft chairs Tuesday afternoon, quizzing each other from word lists. They said the emphasis on vocabulary knowledge has only slightly changed the way they have prepared,
"Sometimes when I would study words, I would ask for definitions so in case it was on the vocab section, I would, like, know it," said Annie, wearing a blue-green "Spell Checker" T-shirt and contemplating a future in news reporting.
Said Rebecca, an aspiring Broadway actress: "I usually remember the definition because it helps me remember the spelling, so my studying didn't really change much."
Both had completed the first part of the preliminary competition in the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee, a 45-minute computer-based test of vocabulary and spelling.
With a new focus on vocabulary -- this year accounting for 50 percent of a speller's overall score -- organizers said the contestants are "performing in vocabulary about on par with how they're performing in spelling," said Paige Kimble, executive director of the Bee. "We expected this from them."
Elizabeth Dang of Cordova, Tenn., said the written test came in four sections and that the actual spelling words were "easy." A 12-year-old who won the Memphis regional bee, Elizabeth used Greek and Latin root words to decipher some of the technical vocabulary words, and said she wasn't flustered -- yet.
"I'll be pretty nervous tomorrow on TV and everything," she said.
Speller Mitsuki Ota, 13, of Columbia, Md., and his sister Sara, 8, got a limousine ride to the national Bee this week from his library sponsor and he confessed to a case of nerves even as he was interviewed for his local news station. He said he felt the weight of Howard County "on my shoulders; they've put all their expectations on me."
And while he had the news media's attention, Mitsuki hoped to telegraph a secret wish to Bee coordinators: Please, no French words with their silent x's and double-t's. He says his professional coach told him that speller Arvind Mahankali, 13, of New York City, appearing for the fourth time on the national stage, could be the one to watch. Just getting to the semifinals would be "whipped cream on the top" of what he's already accomplished.
Jyosthna Boyapati and Vijay Kopuri, natives of Hyderabad, India, waited for their daughter, 12-year-old Himanvi Kopuri, to emerge from Tuesday's written exam, describing her strategy in opting to lose last year's local bee in Denver. She intentionally missed a word to avoid a trip to the national stage because she felt unprepared.
"Then her journey started," her mother said.
Himanvi, who aspires to become a cardiac surgeon, is clearly ready for the limelight this year. She has been working with a personal spelling coach as well as with her mother.
She said she answered multiple-choice questions about the meanings of "furtive" and "preemptory" in the computer test Tuesday and hopes she'll be one of the 50 semifinalists, who will be announced Wednesday after the first onstage rounds.
All around the massive Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, with its picturesque views of sailboats on the Potomac River south of the nation's capital, knots of family members -- from grandparents to baby siblings -- are celebrating the love of words and the company of exceptionally gifted children. The 281 spellers and their families spent Memorial Day at a barbecue and will go sightseeing Friday after Thursday's prime-time final rounds.
Brian Reinhart, 13, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., has been sizing up the competition while collecting autographs in an official Bee guide. He is coming off a recent 13th-place showing at the national MathCounts competition. (The top 12 made it to television, he complained.) His favorite books are the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, from which he proudly spells obscure terms. He won his local bee with "agoraphobia," a fear of crowds.
The Bee itself is a wonder of logistics. Lighting and sound crews worked all day getting the spacious ballroom ready for the onstage rounds, including testing the volume on sounds cues, including the dreaded "ding" that signals a speller is eliminated. Banners with previous years' winners and their winning words hang from the high ceilings outside. The Bee's official pronouncer, Jacques A. Bailly, and two of the four judges are former national Bee winners.