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Spelling Bee: How a Florida Teen Became the King of Spelling in the U.S.


Highlights: The word "psammophile" gave victory in the U.S. national spelling championship Spelling Bee. Dev Shah, a 14-year-old student from Largo, Florida, was the winner. The winner, who took the $ 50,000 prize (just over 46,000 euros), was decided after 14 rounds and almost two hours of nerves. The final is broadcast in prime time (as many as 7.5 million viewers in 2022) by the ION network.

The word "psammophile" gives 14-year-old Indo-American Dev Shah the winner in the final of the national spelling contest, in which 11 million students participate each year.

The 11 letters of the word "psammophile" gave victory Thursday night in the U.S. national spelling championship Spelling Bee to Dev Shah, a 14-year-old student from Largo, Florida. As its etymology reveals, a psamófila is a plant, a cactus, for example, capable of surviving in sandy habitats. "Does it come from the Greek, 'psamos,' sand, and 'edges,' lover?" asked Shah to jurors. "That's it," they replied. So the boy threw himself into spelling, "P-S-A-M-M-O-P-H-I-L-E," the audience went crazy and confetti broke out over his head.

Sitting behind him was the last survivor, Charlotte Walsh, a slender girl, also 14, from Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River. In addition to the rules of spelling, Walsh was about to pulverize those of statistics; She was the only one of the 11 finalists of the contest, whose final phase began on Tuesday with 229 applicants, who did not come from an Indo-American family, a community that has overwhelmingly dominated it since the beginning of the century. It could not be: they threw the term "daviely" (a rather obscure and refined way of referring in English to an apathetic person), he released an "Oh, my God" that came from his soul and erred when spelling an invented word, although strangely euphonious: "daevilick".

Charlotte Walsh, at one point in the final. WILL OLIVER (EFE)

The winner, who took the $ 50,000 prize (just over 46,000 euros), was decided after 14 rounds and almost two hours of nerves, disappointments and advertising breaks for the television broadcast in one of the large auditoriums of the National Harbor, a convention center overlooking the river, located south of Washington, already in the State of Maryland.

The audience was made up of a mix of families of the contestants, children between 9 and 14 years old with nerds and talents such as solving the Rubik's cube in 15 seconds, champions of previous editions and other celebrities from the world of spelling, as well as journalists who had come to cover a high-profile event in the United States. A tremendously competitive country in which a language of capricious phonetics is spoken and spelling is an everyday activity. As foreigners know, the first thing one must learn upon arrival is to do the same with his name: "Ai-kei-i-ar". It is also that country in which one of the greatest ridiculous imputations to a vice president was that time Dan Quayle, George Bush senior's deputy, corrected a child who had spelled "potatoe" correctly, and told him that it spelled "potatoe".

For all these reasons, the final is broadcast in prime time (as many as 7.5 million viewers in 2022) by the ION network, owned by the audiovisual conglomerate Scripps, which took over the brand in 1941, 16 years after the first competition, held in 1925. This year was the 95th edition. And if the accounts do not come out, it is because the Spelling Bee was suspended on rare occasions due to force majeure, such as World War II (in 1943, 1944 and 1945) or the pandemic, in 2020.

The last break served the organizers at least to rethink one of the rules of the final, after in 2019 the contest was settled with eight winners, because when time ran out none of them had yet failed a word. Since then, if something like this happens, a face-to-face between the survivors is planned, who are asked to spell as many words as possible in 90 seconds. Last year's winner, Hariri Logan, first decided that way.

On Thursday there was no need. The 11 contestants, the last of a process that in local, regional and state championships begin in September about 11 million children each year, were falling little by little, starting with the youngest of the lot, an 11-year-old brat named Pranav Anadh, who could not spell "leguleian" (leguleian).

Study the dictionary

Others stumbled upon oddities such as "pataca" (Macau coin), "crenel" (the embrasure of a castle) or "chthonic" (relating to the underworld). All of them are words included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary that, with a history of more than three centuries, contains almost half a million entries that publishers consider active (that is to say) in English. Children study them hard, for up to four hours a day and for several years; Some of the participants were performing for the second, third or fifth time.

The father of the winner, Deval Shah, explained to EL PAÍS before the final began that his son, who was next to him, eaten by nerves and acne, had started six years ago, "when he was still in second." The Shah family fulfills the stereotypes of the winner in the Spelling Bee immortalized in the Netflix documentary Geniuses of the ABC (2020), which takes the model of the much more interesting Spellbound (2002) by following four aspirants to explain the keys to the success of the American Indians in the spelling contest: perseverance, certain family values, the work ethic and multilingualism in which they live immersed from the cradle. That adds to the fact, according to influential international policy analyst Fareed Zakaria, one of those interviewed in the film, that "they are participating in the most American tradition: doing things right and following the rules."

Dev Shah, with his family, after winning the final of the National Spelling Bee, on Thursday in National Harbor (Maryland). ALEX WONG (Getty Images via AFP)

That almost absolute dominance – which makes the National Spelling Bee has earned the nickname "the Indian Superbowl" (in reference to the final of the American football league) – has come to provoke racist campaigns on social networks that in the past called for the return of "an American winner". The last time the scepter was not taken by an American Indian-American was in 2021, with the triumph of Laila Avant Garde, the first African-American in history to do so. The girl, of course, is a prodigy: at 16 she has already written her first book, a bestseller, and is among the greatest promises of American women's basketball.

During the two hours of Thursday's competition, Shah, who emitted loud sighs and made the gesture of writing an imaginary keyboard to order his ideas, showed that he could with any word, and that for him it was only a matter of waiting for the skid of the opponents. That moment came when he spelled out at full speed the penultimate of his terms, "bathypitotmeter" (instrument to measure the speed and temperature of water in a sea or a lake), without even having to ask the questions that contestants are allowed before trying their luck: what is the etymology of the term, its typology, possible alternative pronunciations and some examples of their use. After that show of force, came the ruling that ended Walsh's aspirations. Both melted into an embrace.

After the confetti and the presentation of the bulky trophy, Shah was asked to summarize what he felt at that moment in a single word. For a guy with thousands of them on the hard drive, he opted for a fairly common and certainly helpful: "Surreal," he said. "This all seems surreal to me."

Source: elparis

All life articles on 2023-06-02

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