Eleven spellers go into Thursday night's dramatic 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee finals on live TV, including a two-time third-place finisher and other multiyear contestants.
Here are the finalists:
--Pranav Sivakumar of Tower Lakes, Illinois --Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe, Kansas --Christal Schermeister of Pembroke Pines, Florida --Sriram Hathwar of Painted Post, New York --Chetan Reddy of Plano, Texas --Arvind Mahankali of Bayside Hills, New York --Amber Born of Marblehead, Massachusetts --Grace Remmer of St. Augustine, Florida --Nikitha Chandran of Valrico, Florida --Vismaya Kharkar of Bountiful, Utah --Syamantak Payra of Friendswood, Texas
The 11 represent 1 millionth of 1 percent of the spellers who began the competition at their local bees. The winner will take home $30,000 in cash, a massive trophy and lifelong bragging rights.
Spellers in Thursday's afternoon semifinals went down on such obscure terms as "hyetometer," a rain gauge; "ignimbrite," rock made of volcanic ash; "Diplodocus," a herbaceous dinosaur; "amimia," loss of ability to communicate by gestures; "morosoph," a learned fool; "polytocous," producing many offspring at one time; and "pancratiast," a contestant in an ancient Greek athletic contest involving boxing and wrestling. Often, it was clear a speller knew the word and missed by only one letter.
Semifinalists advanced with such doozies as "peristalith," a ring of upright stones; "persiflage," frivolous banter; "graminivorous," feeding on grass; "flaneur," an intellectual trifler; "bilboquet," a game with ball and string; "dasyphyllous," having woolly leaves; and, a favorite of the audience, "smellfungus," one given to fault-finding.
Round Five knocked 10 spellers from the competition. Round Six felled the remainder of the 42 semifinalists to a group of 18. After considering scores from a computer-based test all semifinalists took Wednesday night, a final group was reduced to the 11 who will appear tonight on ESPN at 8 Eastern.
Some spellers clearly seek to stand out. Amber Born of Marblehead, Mass., has yellow fingernail polish,. Hannah Citsay of Lititz, Pa., wears elaborate braids.
Several contestants engaged in a bit of persiflage with the Bee's official word pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a classics professor. In one exchange, Eva Kitlen, 14, of Niwot, Colo., asked, "Can I maybe have a different word?" Bailly responded, "I hope you'll get another word," but it was not to be. She was removed by "cabotinage," a word referring to bad play-acting.
The ballroom audience at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, south of Washington, was treated to brief videos during the televised commercial breaks of some of the contestants in their home and school environments or displaying skills such as swimming, tap-dancing, playing musical instruments or, in one case, removing eyeglasses with her feet.
Rich Boehne, board chairman, president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Co., which administers the Bee, has attended 25 national bees. He said much has changed.
"But one thing that doesn't change is our commitment to literacy and education. That's why Scripps does it ... We run it as a not-for-profit. I told the sponsors this morning that I guess, technically, we own it, but we really see it as an obligation of stewardship, and it's our job to nurture it and support it and protect it and help it grow ... When you look at the stage, I think it's a wonderful picture of America."
The Bee attracts a wide variety of spectators, not just friends and family. Shalini Shankar, associate professor of anthropology with the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, is studying the "mass-mediated spectacle" of the Bee on a National Science Foundation grant.
She said she's interested in "why it is that South Asian children especially have really thrived in this environment in the last 15 years or so. I think nine of the last 13 champions have been of South Asian descent. Since it's a culture that tends to value the sciences more, it's interesting to think: Why are language arts becoming prestigious?"