I used to know this chick on LiveJournal who went to a yearly charity spelling bee for adults at the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Holiday Inn. This sounded glorious to me: You got to showcase your superpower—which never happens with spellers because no one other than spellers gives a single shit about spelling—AND no one could get mad at you for showing off because it's for a good cause! I adored this lady's posts about how she and her husband geared up for the bee every year, how they quizzed each other, the lists of the words they were given. I pored over these lists, wondering whether I'd be able to figure out "hygeian" (related to health or health practices) on the spot.
In adult life, spelling is a dying—no, a dead art. Anyone with a desk job knows that folks can get away with writing downright illiterate e-mails in a professional setting and never get called out. The job of knowing how to spell words correctly, of noticing when they aren't spelled correctly, has been entirely outsourced to computers, like basic arithmetic, navigation, and remembering your friends' birthdays. If you ARE a great speller, well guess what: Fuck you, no one cares.
So this idea of a spelling bee for adults, well...
In the fall of 2007, the night before I moved to New York City, some friends brought me to the Seattle Spelling Bee at Re-bar, which, unfairly, had been existing without my knowledge for more than a year. It was so fun, it was psychedelic. The very charming hosts, Josh Malamy and Benjamin Williams, were enthusiastic about suffixes and joked with the spellers about homonyms and accents aigus and knew their International Phonetic Alphabet. I just couldn't believe what I was witnessing. The world had turned upon itself. I correctly spelled "telamon" (a colossal male figure used as a column) and "cluse" (a narrow gorge cutting transversely through an otherwise continuous ridge) before botching the relatively easy "chrysography" (the art of writing letters in gold).
Turns out, I was about to walk face-first into the spelling fire. Jennifer Dziura and bobbyblue have been cohosting the very popular Williamsburg Spelling Bee at Pete's Candy Store in Brooklyn since 2004. Though the hosts are clever and fun, the contestants at the Williamsburg bee do not play. Seattle's bee was big on banter and gentle toward mistakes; Williamsburg's bee is about East Coast type As who are there to fucking win. The spellers were dangerously good: archivists at MoMA, New York Times copy editors, the Juilliard-trained pianist who won almost every week, making me half-crazed with compound envy. The degree of difficulty was high: "chionablepsia" (snow blindness) and "uintjie" (a chestnut-like corm that grows in South Africa). The major similarity between the Williamsburg and Seattle bees? Very dude heavy, which still surprises me.
Competitive spelling in bars is campy and cute, but a real bee—like a regional one for kids—is radically fun, even if you're not competing. Watching kids spell is comedic in the mouths-of-babes sense, but it's also more emotionally taxing, because it contains not a speck of irony. Kids, at least the ones in spelling competitions, have not yet learned how profoundly unimportant spelling actually is to the post-school world, which makes them utterly sincere and profoundly engaged.
Seeing people sort out their piles of syllables is fascinating. It's like giving someone a whole cake, then watching him taste it to try to decode the ingredients and proportions.
I've made two attempts to launch bar-based spelling bees in Seattle, and both times the crowd petered out pretty quickly. I'm not sure what the problem is. Maybe people move to New York because they like going out into the world, and people move to Seattle because they like hiding in their apartments and playing Defense of the Ancients. But that may be a cynical perspective. I keep wondering what could ever succeed in drawing Seattle's elusive word nerds from their hidey-holes. What lures grown-up people to compete in a spelling bee in the first place? Is it nostalgia? Competitiveness? Prestige? Pedantry? Prizes? Which angle should I be milking here?
The other day, while helping my friend's kid cram for the King-Snohomish County Regional Spelling Bee, I got an answer. We took a break from the quizzing, and I asked him what he likes about bees. "I just really like words," he said.
That is correct.