Speak and Spell
Love, Heartache, and Drunkenness at the Seattle Spelling Bee
The problem with the Scripps National Spelling Bee is that not enough of its participants are visibly intoxicated. They're brilliant kids, and even the homely ones are adorable in their way, but none of them drink to calm their nerves. Despite this major flaw in our nation's premier bee, spelling bees—which combine the fortifying pleasure of learning with the crass thrill of voyeurism—have grown justly popular in recent years.
Over the course of six monthly events, the Seattle Spelling Bee has inspired nerves and drinking in equal measure. January 8 marks its championship round, which will bring about the resolution of several eternal struggles: age vs. youth, knowledge vs. instinct, cicisbeism vs. tribadism. Twelve finalists (myself among them) have earned the right to bask under the Re-bar's lights and prove their orthographic mettle. Even those who haven't spelled "isocryme" in public can vie for prizes in audience competitions. The evening promises to be a triumphant celebration of words and the people who love them, but it's only through a tenuous series of events that it's happening at all.
nociceptor, noun: a receptor for injurious or painful stimuli, a pain sense organ.
Like every good nightlife phenomenon, the Seattle Spelling Bee started in Budapest. The eventual cohosts, Josh Malamy and Benjamin Anderson, met there on June 29, 2004, while working as flight attendants. A globetrotting romance ensued. Anderson dumped Malamy next summer, and Malamy moved back home to Brooklyn to nurse his heartache. He found renewed purpose in studying for the much-ballyhooed Williamsburg Spelling Bee—and won the championship soon after reuniting with Anderson.
dithyramb, noun: 2. a statement or writing in an exalted or enthusiastic vein.
When Anderson and Malamy moved to Seattle last April, they decided that it would be fun to start a spelling bee. Malamy talks about spelling like nobody else. He's surprisingly charitable—almost indulgent—toward bad spelling. "It's really exciting hearing people spell the words the way they think they should be spelled," he says. Malamy's consuming passion for words began in 2003, when he ceased pursuing a degree in molecular biology and started studying Hindu philosophy. He ties spelling to the Hindu concept of namarupa: names and forms. Spelling a word endows it with form; to spell is to summon. One utters an arcane combination of syllables to cast a—no, I won't go there (and, to his credit, neither did Malamy).
The hosts pride themselves on running a "kinder, gentler" spelling bee. It takes three incorrect spellings to get eliminated, as opposed to the usual one—and even then, Anderson and Malamy seem genuinely sorry to see people lose. Each month has seen up to 20 contestants winnowed down to three hardy finishers. All this public spelling brings out people's furtive needs and secret quirks. We have long been able to watch people walk, dance, or engage in ill-advisedly videotaped sex acts. Now we can see them fumble with the generative organs of the word "daiquiri."
debellation, noun: the act of debelling (debel: conquer, subdue).
A 56-year-old copy editor, Randy Hilfman, won the July, August, and September installations of the Seattle Spelling Bee. No less an authority than the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called him a "spelling bee god," and he works hard to live up to the label. He's reading through Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary; he owns a heavily highlighted copy of How to Spell Like a Champ. Hilfman has always been a handy speller—and a composer of erotic crossword puzzles—and he's out to claim the recognition he deserves. He wields the English language like a weapon, and he knows just where to point it. I've finished second to him on two occasions, but it was worth my agony just to discover that this bleak and unjust world can bring forth a hero like Randy Hilfman.
I look forward to meeting Hilfman in the championship. I'll probably lose again: My beloved obligingly dumped me a few months ago, but I haven't acquired Josh Malamy's post-traumatic study habits. This is far from a two-horse race, though—everyone in the finals has the chops to win. Number Gavin Borchert among them: This Seattle Weekly writer vaulted my own greatest achievements by winning December's bee. His most difficult word was Hakenkreuz, "the swastika used as a symbol of German anti-Semitism or of Germany under Nazi government." Borchert's familiarity with swastikas is just one of the dazzling plot lines that will converge on the 8th. Hearts will break, honor will flourish, and at least one person will get spectacularly drunk.