OXON HILL, Maryland — Confidence on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage shows up in subtle ways, like proofreaders asking questions even though they know the answers.
Dev Shah, one of 11 spellers who made it through Wednesday’s semi-finals and will return Thursday to compete for the winner’s trophy and more than $50,000 in cash and prizes, received the word “Perioeci” and quickly eliminated all suspense with his on-stage banter.
“Does this come from the Greek ‘peri’, which means around?” Dev asked.
“Yes,” said Reverend Brian Sietsema, the bee’s associate pronunciator.
Dev: “Does it come from the Greek ‘oikos’, which means house?”
Asked, and answered.
The finalists fought their way unscathed through eight rounds – five spellings, three vocabulary – and Dev was one of the few who never looked pissed off.
The semi-finals in particular were a triumph of efficiency for Scripps and his word-selection panel, perhaps aided by a standardized pre-bee test, the first of its kind, which allowed Scripps to assess the abilities spellings. Of the 55 quarter-finals, 33 were eliminated in the first round of semi-final spelling. The word panel followed through on its plan to make the vocabulary questions fairer than last year; only two were sounded on definitions. And then in the final spelling round of the semis, nine of the other 20 misspelled.
Since almost everyone who participates in the National Spelling Bee – even several recent champions – eventually misses a word, the default posture for spellers is nervous, restless, defensive. Even the most prepared children know that the bell can ring at any time.
“It’s very obvious when I don’t know the word,” said fellow finalist Pranav Anandh, 14, of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. “I’m going to panic a bit. It takes me a second to recover.”
A handful of spellings showed real swagger: 2021 champion Zaila Vanguard and 2019 runner-up Simone Kaplan wowed the audience by reciting the dictionary definitions almost verbatim. In 2017, fourth-placed Shourav Dasari had a viral mic-dropping moment when he spelled “mogollon” in 5 seconds, turned around, and returned to his seat. Zaila, also a basketball prodigy, recently published a book, “It’s No Boasting If It’s True.”
Dev, a 14-year-old from Largo, Florida, flexes his knowledge so casually he can escape notice.
Given the word “exhortation” in the quarter-finals, Dev asked, “Can I have all the alternative pronunciations? In other words, he already knew that the word had several alternative pronunciations.
“To be fair,” Dev later told The Associated Press, “the word ‘exhortation’ isn’t the rarest word. It wasn’t such a bad word. I’m not complaining.”
Dev explained that he doesn’t have a formulaic approach to asking questions. It will usually ask questions about a word’s roots, definition, and language of origin. If he repeats a question, he tries to reassure himself.
“I never ask for a sentence, though. It’s just me,” Dev said. “It depends on the word, but a sentence is just a delaying tactic.”
Scott Remer, who coaches six of the finalists – Dev, Pranav, Dhruv Subramanian, Shradha Rachamreddy, Arth Dalsania and Sarah Fernandes – asks his students to pace themselves and ask any questions that might be helpful.
“Generally the kids who ask more questions are the ones who actually know more, which is maybe counterintuitive,” Remer said.
Sometimes the spellings even do a bit of a narcotic – Pranav and fellow runner-up Charlotte Walsh said they sometimes ask intentional questions about roots they doubt are part of a word, because the answer “no” can be just as useful.
Sticking to a routine, even if the speller knows a word right away, can keep spellers relaxed and avoid misses.
“There’s a certain confidence that comes from having some kind of checklist. You don’t wade through the stage. You know what you have to do, you know when you have to do it, and it’s a procedure that you can follow to parse the word and break it down methodically,” Remer said. “I think this method really helps, especially when you’re under pressure.”
The other finalists were Surya Kapu – who also competed in the 2022 final – Aryan Khedkar, Vikrant Chintanaboina and Tarini Nandakumar.
Despite being knocked out in the semi-finals, 13-year-old Kavya Jakasaina of Jersey City, New Jersey had the demeanor of a spelling veteran – which she isn’t. She only took spelling seriously after losing her school last year.
“Rather than panicking and looking nervous, I’d rather, even if it’s my last word up there, at least handle it with grace and pride,” Kavya said. “Spelling comes naturally to me, so I feel a bit at home here.”
Chief Justice Mary Brooks took note as she bid farewell to Kavya.
“Your word that propelled you into the (semi-)final was ‘ethereal,'” Brooks said, “and it can also describe the graceful poise with which you spelled.”