"Yo mama fat as a dugong!" I blinked at the audience in Re-bar. Asking to hear "dugong" used in a sentence hadn't helped at all. Was it "dugong" or "doogong"? I settled on the less obvious choice: d-o-o-g-o-n-g. "I'm sorry, but that's incorrect."
In first grade, "neighbor" was my downfall. I spelled it n-a-b-o-r and the pain has been with me ever since. When I heard a recent NPR report on the nationwide craze for hip adult spelling bees, my life regained a little of its promise. Not because I wanted to number myself among the "hundreds of twentysomethings in straight-leg jeans" that attended a recent bee in our nation's capital, but because I knew how to spell every damn word in the story. Sousaphone? Kaleidoscope? No problem.
At Re-bar, contestants and spectators filled the tables and stood along the walls. Though most of them were, in fact, twentysomethings, I spotted a number of tapered jeans—not to mention skirts. Each contestant began by answering an ice-breaking question, such as "If your mom weren't human, what animal would she be?" A few contestants managed witty answers, but the spelling words were the stars of the show. They ranged from the ungainly ("estimableness") to the underused ("mollycoddle") to the downright impossible ("ngwee"). Pronunciation was also a problem—a contestant in an Axl Rose T-shirt persisted in hearing "begird" as "biggered" and I discovered I've spent my entire life mispronouncing "flaccid" (it is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "FLAX-id").
Bolstered by a triumphant spelling of "dorcastry," I earned a second-place finish and three drink tickets—but "dugong" left me as just another twentysomething with the bad luck to run up against Randy Hilfman, a middle-aged copy editor who works at the Eddie Bauer corporate headquarters in Redmond. Hilfman, who remains undefeated in spelling bees, mixes humility with an orthographic skill that suggests a Faustian bargain. He studies word lists, but also has a knack for good guesses. Next month, I seek my revenge.