Washington — The 80th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee began Wednesday with a record field of youngsters spelling words that most adults can't even pronounce.
Outside the headquarters hotel, members of the Simplified Spelling Society urged a complete rewrite of the English language, so that the "e" in the word "met" is also used in the words "said" "many" and "jeopardy." Inside, the adrenaline of 286 youngsters who range in age from 10 to 15 filled the hotel with exuberance.
"I just want to be on TV," said Zina Ellis, of Moline, Ill. The 13-year-old's mother, Thea, confided that her daughter requested, if she were to win, $1,000 for shoes in different colors to go with every outfit.
To get on television, contestants have to make it to the semifinals, which will be carried on ESPN this morning. To win, they'll have to get to the championship round, carried by ABC tonight.
Alas, Ellis was eliminated in the fourth round, on the word "bracteolate" (she spelled it as "brachteolate.")
Thanks to recent attention from Hollywood, interest in spelling and spelling bees has spiked, with this year's national contest attracting 10 million contestants.
"Children want to be recognized," said Paige Kimball, the event's director and herself the 1981 champion. "All too often, children who prefer academics to athletics take a back seat."
Sala Aouad, of Terre Haute, Ind., said her son Kennyi did not speak until he was 5. By then, he had been reading regularly, memorizing words. In the fourth grade, he entered a local spelling bee - and lost. "Kennyi never likes to lose," she said.
Now 11, he said he's excited at the chance to test himself against the best in the nation. "I like competition," Kennyi Aouad said. "It puts one's skills to the test."
Kennyi not only advanced to today's competition, but he brought down the house in the third round when confronted with the word "sardoodledom." His first reaction was to burst out laughing. The crowd in the 1,100-seat ballroom burst out laughing too. Every time the judge offered the word, the 11-year-old burst out laughing. With the clock running (contestants get two minutes and 30 seconds to spell the word from the time they hear it), he had to stop the giggles to spell the word. When he did so correctly, the crowd burst into applause.
For much of its life, the bee was a niche event. Then two things happened to change its complexion.
In 1985, Balu Natarajan, a 13-year-old son of Indian-American parents, won by correctly spelling "milieu." He became an overnight sensation in his ethnic community, and many first-generation Americans came to see the contest as a passport to acceptance in U.S. culture, encouraging their kids to compete.
Then, Hollywood discovered the contest. In 2002 the documentary "Spellbound" won an Oscar nomination, followed by a Broadway musical and last year's film "Akeelah and the Bee," which tracks a Los Angeles girl as she overcomes adversity to compete in the event.
The contest also has attracted its share of writers. Myla Goldberg's 2000 novel "Bee Season" was made into a movie starring Richard Gere, and pop culture writer James Maguire wrote a book last year called "American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds."