‘Spellebrity’ US Spelling Champions’ Indian Roots

    IF you can spell words such as pathognomonic, doryline, melocoton, kaburi, conquistador, flibbertigibbet, humuhumunukunukuapuaa, physiognomy, weissnichtwo and gobbledegook, you might have stood a chance at the annual American spelling competition, but then this year you would have to know the meaning of these words too. Yet children between the ages of 8 and 14 battled with their pears to win the spelling bee competition and become ‘spellebrities’, as these brainy celebrities are known.

    In what has become a common occurrence, it was a child of Indian origin who won the competition this year, just as five others had done so in the past five years. This time the winner was a boy, Arvind Mahankali, another break in recent tradition where the past five winners, and 52 per cent of this year’s competitors, were girls. An exasperated Professor Henry Higgins said in the classic film, My Fair Lady, “There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!” Yet it is in this very nation, one that not particularly known for keeping true to the Queen’s English, that this competition has been held since 1925.

    This year there were 281 spellers, and 116 of them speak more than one language. Indians, it seems, have a natural affinity for spellings. The youngest competitor was eight-year-old Tara Singh. Two of the competitors, Vanya Shivashankar, and Ashwin Veeramani, have siblings who have previously won the competition. In fact, Arvind Mahankali too had missed the top honor twice, in the past, but he conquered his difficulties with Germanic origin words and got it right.

    This was not a case of third time lucky, more one of Bruce Lee and the Spider’s tale of try, try and try again. Now, that’s a good mantra to keep in mind whether you are in a spelling bee competition or generally negotiating the syntax of life.


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