Forty-two contestants advanced to the semi-finals of the top US spelling contest, the first to also ask competitors to know what the words mean.
They were among 281 youngsters from eight nations who gathered at the Gaylord National Resort outside Washington for the three-day Scripps National Spelling Bee that is an enduring American institution.
Those who made the cut Wednesday included New York’s Arvind Mahankali, 13, a four-time contestant who placed third last year and in 2011, and 11-year-old Katharine Wang, one of two entries from China.
Stumbling out of the 86th edition of the competition were this year’s youngest hopeful, Tara Singh. But the event’s official Twitter feed (@ScrippsBee) noted that the eight-year-old from Kentucky has “many years ahead” to return to the finals.
Organizers had initially announced 41 semi-finalists, but later added eighth grader Nikitha Chandran from Florida after determining that her spelling for “virucide” — “viruscide” — was an acceptable alternative.
The finals take place Thursday at 8:00 pm (0000 GMT Friday), televised on the ESPN sports channel, following the semi-finals in the afternoon.
For the past five years, the annual National Spelling Bee has been clinched by youngsters of South Asian heritage — a reflection, some say, of the overriding importance their immigrant families place on educational excellence.
“I don’t think anything in particular makes them so special besides hard work and a culture that is obviously encouraging them,” said Jacques Bailly, the 1980 champion who now is the event’s chief word pronouncer.
“This is a fantastic event,” added the University of Vermont classics professor. “There are no quotas. These (contestants) are winners and they look to me like a wonderful cross-section of America. It inspires me.”
Fifteen contestants were knocked out in Wednesday’s first public rounds that began with “glasnost” and “perestroika” — Russian words from the final years of the Soviet Union when none of the competitors had yet been born.
The competition kicked off Tuesday with computer-based tests, and reaches its climax Thursday with nationally televised finals producing a winner who goes home with $30,000 cash and other prizes.
More than 11 million children have taken part in qualifying spelling bees over the past school year, with the best of the best advancing stage after stage toward the nationals.
Seven weeks ago, organizers caused a stir when they declared that for the first time in more than eight decades of competition, this year’s contestants would have to prove their ability to not just spell obscure words, but also define them.
The reaction has been “very enthusiastic,” said National Spelling Bee executive director Paige Kimble, the 1981 champion.
“I’ve had many parents and spellers approach me this week, thanking me (because) they realize that this raises the prestige of the achievement of making it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.”
For most of its history, the event has been run on a non-profit basis by the Scripps media group, and many contestants have traveled to the US capital with sponsorship from their hometown daily newspapers.
Kimble said “time will tell” whether the vocabulary element will alter the nature of the competition that has fundamentally remained unchanged since 1925, when Frank Neuhauser of Kentucky won the first national bee with “gladiolus.”
“Our own gut feeling is that it’s not going to change the national finals much at all,” she said.
“But it will have a profound effect for all the millions of students who participate at school-level spelling bees,” given the emphasis on learning vocabulary as part of preparing for competition.
Bailly, who won the 1980 national title with “elucubrate,” which means to work out something by studious effort, saw a direct link between spelling and vocabulary.
“Spelling and meaning are so intimately connected,” he told reporters. “If they don’t know the meaning now, they don’t have as good a chance at spelling.”