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Oh, to bee in a spelling bee again

A Word, Please

June 07, 2006|By JUNE CASAGRANDE

As the former third-grade spelling bee champion of Melrose Elementary School, I understand that most people ? non-spelling-bee champs ? have difficulty with big, scary words. Therefore, as your humble word columnist, I consider it my duty to guide you through the intimidating world of words we witnessed on network television Thursday.

I'm speaking, of course, about the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee ? a stunning display of June-like ability among the nation's best and brightest young minds. To offer you the best possible insight into this event, I'll draw on my own personal experience and the expertise that qualifies me to bee (get it? bee?) your guide.

I just hope that none of these poor children had to face off against the word that eliminated every other Melrose Elementary School third-grader except yours truly: Giraffe. G-I-R-A-F-F-E. Giraffe.

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I know, I know: Dazzling. But try to keep your awe in check. I actually knew what this word meant. (I was a very worldly third-grader.) And that's the expertise I'll bring you ? a master's explanation of what these words mean.

Let's jump right in and look at the words that this year's national spelling bee contenders were up against. Scanning some of the preliminary reports, I see a word that eliminated one of the contenders: "anacoluthon."

Believe it or not, I'm not familiar with that one. Probably some kind of zoo animal. I'll just look it up.

According to Webster's, it's "a change from one grammatical construction to another within the same sentence, sometimes as a rhetorical device."

OK, so it's about grammar. And I'm a grammar columnist. No problem. I'm sure it's just an unnecessarily difficult word used by people who don't possess my easy grasp of the subject. For example, consider the following sentence: "I won the spelling bee ? that's right, you heard me ? for the entire third grade." Some might call that an anacoluthon. I'd call it "a clever kind of sentence that contains a totally different kind of phrase or sentence right inside." See how simplicity equals brilliance?

I'm sure that 13-year-old Katharine Close, this year's winner, would appreciate such wisdom. After all, she knows how to spell, hmmm, let's see here, "Ursprache." What an amazing coincidence (C-O-I-N-C-I-D-E-N-C-E ? coincidence): They found another word I don't know. Let's look it up.

It's pronounced OOR-shpra-ke and Webster's says it means, "a reconstructed, hypothetical parent language, as Proto-Germanic."

Interesting. Another word about language. But while to the untrained eye this may seem to be cause for concern on my part, perhaps suggesting that my language expertise is less than absolute, I can read between the lines. "Hypothetical" and "language" are the buzzwords in this definition. I'll say no more.

"Mirliton" is another word that cropped up during the course of the competition. That one I know. Mirliton is a small town in Kentucky named in honor of Merle Haggard, or, as the dictionary puts it ? wait, wait. Webster's doesn't seem to know this definition. Its authors think mirliton is a term used in Cajun cooking. That explains it. It's a Southern thing. I wouldn't know about that. I'm from Florida.

And considering that not even national spelling bee organizers have the courage to challenge America's greatest young spellers with a word as difficult as "giraffe," I believe this definition is one that will stick with me.

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