Friday, June 02, 2006

The Windpipe Is an Aeriferous Tube


I will take this word with me to the grave. It’s the one I missed in my sixth-grade Spelling Bee.

I did not ask for its language of origin (Latin, I believe). I did not ask for its definition: conveying or containing air. I did not ask to have it used in a sentence: “The windpipe is an aeriferous tube.” I simply tried to spell it. And failed.

At the time, Bees were not the nationally-televised haven for homeschoolers that they’ve become today. Students didn’t receive a booklet of words in advance of the competition or spend hours each night studying etymology on the official Bee-sanctioned web site, mostly because we didn’t have computers and there was no web.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Some poor kid always gets screwed.

In a recent column, Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune addresses the inherent unfairness of the Spelling Bee. I can attest first hand that the margin between Champion and Also Ran boils down to the seating chart.

Speller in Seat #1 is given “relevant.” An underhand pitch. Speller in Seat #2 receives “anthropomorphism” and a one-way ticket to obscurity.

I have always been a good speller. In the fifth grade, Mrs. Clark kept a chart of our weekly spelling grades: a gold star for each “A” earned in honors spelling, red for an “A” in general, blue for an “A” in remedial. The space next to my name was paved with one long unbroken line of gold. I loved that piece of poster board.

So I reached the finals of our school district’s Bee feeling fairly confident. Fewer than 10 of us remained in the competition. We had just had our picture taken for the Suburban Press. That’s me, on the far left, in my gold-rimmed glasses and peasant skirt and blouse. In Seat #1.

The pronouncer threw out “aeriferous.” Spell Check keeps changing this to “auriferous,” which says something about the rarity of the word. Try looking it up online and Merriam-Webster will send you to its Premium Unabridged Service. According to the web, references in Classic Literature: none. My point being, I had no chance. I took a stab with “airiferous” and the Bee was lost.

Subsequent finalists were sent packing with equally ridiculous obscurities. And the winner? Well she was sitting in the very last seat. She stepped to the microphone. The pronouncer gave her “carioca.”

Word of origin: Portuguese. Definition: a dance similar to the Samba. Used in a sentence: “Let’s dance the carioca.”

Carioca. Pronounced like it’s spelled.

We had our champ. Or did we?

The Challenge is a staple of Spelling Bees. Ours was no exception. You see, the words had been projected on a screen behind the spellers’ backs. Before she got to “carioca,” Miss Winner had to correctly spell the preceding contestant’s word, otherwise we were all back in the hunt. There were some who thought they saw her glance at the screen during the previous turn. Which would make her a cheater.

Cheater. Language of origin: Middle English. Definition: one who deceives, swindles; a fraud. Used in a sentence: “That girl is a cheater.”

The Challenge was overruled and Miss Cheater took home her tainted trophy. I would always have my gold stars.

Am I bitter? You bet.



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