Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Humor Me: Lights, camera, spell it or else

On Thursday, the finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee will be aired on ESPN, the humble little network that bills itself as the “worldwide leader in sports.” Can you imagine how those kids will feel as they stand on the stage, staring into the cameras of the worldwide leader in self-importance?

Lots of pressure. Each kid must feel like he or she is swimming in a huge ocean and is just a little humuhumunukunukuapuaa.

No, I didn’t just fall asleep on the keyboard. That’s an actual word that could come up in the Spelling Bee. It’s the name of a small Hawaiian triggerfish. If you’d like some help pronouncing it, it starts with an “h” sound.

If I had really fallen asleep while writing this column, you might’ve seen something like nergqwenjgkm, fewpkkwkdsa or goraaaaafnssanFDADFA (with left temple hitting the caps lock). But you wouldn’t see floccinaucinihilipilificate because, well, you need to know how to spell to get that one.

Or just get lucky, I guess. But it’s a real word, with a meaning of “describing something as worthless.” Used in a sentence, I suggest:

Floccinaucinihilipilificate is a word that I will never use.

I will never use it, but maybe it's a word the spelling contestants, none of which are in high school yet, will use. I know they can spell it, along with words such as "sphagnum" and "appoggiatura." No problem for them. They’ll stare into the bright lights of the worldwide leader of all things and rattle off "chiaroscurist" as though it’s a word they use every day.

Hey guys, doesn’t this part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows remind you of a chiaroscurist painting?

I really am amazed by these spellers. They make it look easy and there’s some serious tension onstage. It reminds me of when I was a champion speller.

Well, nearly a championship speller. I believe I was the fifth or sixth-runner up in my fifth grade class of about 25. Maybe I didn’t even make it that far at Horizon Elementary (home of the fighting Panthers and fire-ant infestations). I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember the word that tripped me up:

Chocolate.

I went with C-H-O-C-A-L-A-T-E.

Not an impressive word to go out on, I know. But I got what I deserved. Instead of turning pages in the spelling-bee study guide, my spelling-bee prep involved turning up the volume on MTV. I watched a lot of ESPN back then, too, when it was worldwide leader in coverage of cliff diving and miniature golf.

The spelling stars of today are much more disciplined. They study and sacrifice for years to prepare for the moment when they walk onstage and spell a word that might never again be uttered by a human.

And the competition gets tougher every year. Guess what the winning word was back in 1940?

"Therapy."

In 1941, it was "initials."

Seriously, those were the winning words. I know there were a lot of things distracting Americans from high-level spelling study back then -- such as the demonstration of the first color TV and, oh yeah, a psycho dude named Hitler – but I’m not impressed. I might’ve actually been able to compete in 1940 and '41 had I nailed down c-h-o-c-o-l-a-t-e.

But these days? There's not a chance that I could make it past the first round. I’m astounded by the words that these young super spellers confidently bust out.

Laodicea. Stromuhr. Cymotrichous.

If I spent more than five minutes studying words like that, I would start dozing. I'd get a severe case of the falling-asleep-neck-snap that I remember so well from political science classes in college.

Autochthonous succedaneum xanthosis efbewbgfjerlqgbwhelrgwr.

Yep, nodded off on that last one. But who knows? Maybe it will show up on this week's Spelling Bee.

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