The spotlights make it hard not to squint. Before my turn at the microphone, I fidgeted in my seat, crossing my legs and taking gulps of an amber ale. Now I’m standing at the edge of the stage, and there’s nothing to do but fold my arms and try to hide the fact that while others are here for fun, I’m here to exorcise a demon.
The audience quiets and the announcer says my word: kugel.
Kugel, I repeat, the first syllable exploding through the sound system like a cough. I’m fairly confident I know how to spell this word, but childhood scars never truly heal. This is a spelling bee, for God’s sake. Maybe the more manageable first-round words aren’t so easy after all. Am I absolutely positive about -el instead of -le? And how mortifying would it be to be absolutely positive and STILL be wrong?
I ask for the language of origin, just for the sake of doing it, but I’m too anxious to process the response. The same goes for an example sentence. (For the record: from Yiddish, a baked pudding served as a side dish or dessert.)
Kugel: k-u-g-e-l. Kugel.
That’s correct, says the announcer.
Two years ago, I set out to write a book about spelling. As a poor speller, I wanted to trace the roots of our wacky system for stringing letters into words. How exactly did our words come to look the way they do today? For centuries, scholars, editors, and other arbiters of culture have campaigned for reform of the English spelling code. What ever came of their efforts? Such influential people as Andrew Carnegie, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Noah Webster all pushed for an orthographic overhaul. To them, an event like a spelling bee wasn’t a charming American pastime; it was a quintessential illustration of how difficult the code could be, especially for those children who weren’t spelling savants—children like me.
At the same time, I needed to acquaint myself with the strange ritual that is the spelling bee. As a crappy speller, I had never been to one, and watching Spellbound doesn’t really count. During my year of research for the book, I occasionally attended the Monday-night spelling bee for adults at Mississippi Pizza Pub in North Portland. The organizer, Katherine “with a K” Woods-Eliot, pulls words from the same word lists used for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but the atmosphere is substantially more relaxed: Participants bring their pints of microbrew onstage, there’s a generous intermission for refills, and no one seems to mind the occasional hint or mulligan. In other words, it’s a very Portland event, and I’d venture to say that adult spelling bees in Boston or New York City probably aren’t as chummy.
Yet the idea of participating still freaked me out. Every time I attended, my M.O. was to sit in the back and watch, telling myself that this was, if not valuable reporting, at least a good setting in which to mull over matters of etymology and orthography. Really, though, I was too nervous to sign up as a contestant. To legitimize my tab, I promised myself that once my book was completed, I would finally step up.
And so here I am. As No. 15 of 15 participants, I have the advantage of prior attrition as other spellers fall out of the running. Lupine, purloin, exigencies, hubristic, oligopsony, navicular. I make nervous jokes with the woman to my right, admiring her easygoing stage presence. She’s a short-haired hipster. When it’s her turn to spell, my imagination, overloaded with ideas about language trends and the Internet, gets the better of me. I imagine her lecturing us about creative spellings in text messages and e-mails, compared with the stuffier spelling rules that still permeate everything from letters to newspapers.