Echaves: Keeping up with English

In this age of abbreviated text, when spellings of words are mangled supposedly to economize on space, the story about winners in the recent Scripps National Spelling Bee in the US is truly refreshing.

“Nunatak” and “scherenschnitte”-- what are those? Some near relations to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” of “Mary Poppins” vintage? Or
“electroencephalographically,” supposedly the longest word in the dictionary?

But deliciously refreshing was that the winners were new teenagers, just 13 and 14, who sent organizers panicky about running out of words to break the tie.

Thanks to Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam, their peers now know that “nunatak” is a hill or mountain surrounded by glacial ice, and “scherenschnitte” is a German word meaning "scissor cuts" or the art of paper cutting design.

Tough words, considering they came from the 25-word championship collection that included “pipsissewa,” “pyrrhuloxia,” and “hippocrepiform, “ according to Terrance Ross in his article “The Spelling Bee Obsession.”

Wha-a-a-at? These spelling bees just don’t collect words like they used to. Compare this to the championship word “therapy” in 1940.

But Valerie Miller, spokesperson for Scripps National Spelling Bee, explained, “As the spellers up their game, so does the Bee.” So, expect more difficult words as this contest enters its 89th year.

Side, some snide, observations point to the prevalence of South Asian or Indian American winners in the past decade. Others have concluded that their dominance in spelling bees is no different from the Kenyan and Ethiopian supremacy in long-distance running.

Not so, says Spelling Bee director Paige Kimble, 1981 winner. Rather, it took thirty years before a student of South Asian/Indian American heritage won. But she takes issue with Americans’ insinuations that these winners are not Americans like them.

Outside of the participants, the issue is where exactly did the spelling bee begin? Both the United Kingdom and the United States lay claim.

The greater sway is, however, towards the US. From the 1870s until 1925, spelling matches were unofficial, informal entertainment until they finally dwindled.

Within the twentieth century, they became more structured and finally officialized into the present Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Which could mean that a word like “honorable” would be considered spelled correctly in the US, but rejected in the UK because of the missing ubiquitous “u.” Or would that word not even make it in the general list, because it’s just too simple for a spelling match?

Now, that’s just the spelling.

Take on the English usage. Because of the popularity of the English language, it can take on the look, sound and usage of a people. All the more reason for keeping abreast with and monitoring its growth in dimension, applicability and adaptability.

For instance, are there such words as “funner” and “funnest”? Aren’t these slang, colloquialism or worse, barbarism?

Panic not, Merriam Webster says. The words are acceptable.

So, it’s now all right to say “the party last night was fun, the second party was funner, but the evening party was funnest.” Visit Merriam-Webster Ask the Editor.


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