Ananya Vinay never looked all that impressed by any of the words she was given in the final competition of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The 12-year-old from Fresno, California, showed little emotion and needed little time as she correctly spelled word after word. Sometimes she would ask the official bee pronouncer, Dr. Jacques Bailly, all the important questions, such as “Part of speech?” and ″Language of origin?” Sometimes, though, she did not even do that.
Ananya seized her chance at victory when her only remaining opponent, Rohan Rajeev, misspelled a word. It was a simple-looking but rarely used Scandinavian word, “marram,” a beach grass.
Ananya then calmly spelled two words in a row. Her winning word was “marocain,” a clothing fabric.
“I knew them all,” Ananya later said.
Ananya hardly smiled even when her parents and younger brother hurried onto the stage to hug her as colorful confetti fell. She took time to comfort Rohan, who remained in his seat, rubbing tears from his eyes.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Ananya said. “I’m so happy right now.”
She will take home more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.
Ananya is the 13th Indian-American in a row to win the bee. Like most other Indian-American winners, she prepared by taking part in highly competitive bees that are limited to Indian-Americans. However, she did not win those competitions.
More than 290 spellers traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this week to take part in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. They qualified for the event by winning their regional or local spelling competitions.
Most of the competitors are in middle school. This year’s oldest competitor was 15. The youngest speller, Edith Fuller, just turned six. Bee organizers believe she is the youngest person ever to qualify for the national spelling bee.
After qualifying in March, Edith became famous across the nation. On Wednesday, in between rounds of competition, she held her own press conference.
"Edith, how does it feel to be the youngest speller in history?"
"It feels really exciting."
"Do you hope to come back to the bee next year?"
"I do, if I don’t win this time."
After her press conference, Edith correctly spelled “tapas” in the third round. But, her score on a written vocabulary test was not high enough to move her forward to the final on Thursday.
Preparing for the Bee
All bee words come from the more than 490,000 entries in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
Bee qualifiers study for many hours each day. They learn language patterns and the roots of words. A root is a word from which other words are formed.
Successful spellers know much about Latin, French, Greek and Sanskrit roots and rules. In the finals Thursday, spellers faced words including “choucroute” and “tulsi.” “Choucroute" is a French word for a kind of vegetable served with meat. “Tulsi” is a kind of herb. That word entered the Hindi language from Sanskrit.
While some of this year’s bee words were recognizable to the average American, most were not. Almost all entered English from other languages. But a few – such as McMansion, shopaholic and webisode – were new words in American popular culture.
A few were even trademarked names, like “Klydonograph.” That word, a photographic device, meant dismissal for competitor Erin Howard in the final rounds. The word has no known roots or language of origin.
Last year’s winners
Nihar Janga was 11 years old when he tied with then-13-year-old Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 National Spelling Bee. They were the final two spellers left for 25 rounds, before judges declared them both winners.
Because of bee rules, they are not permitted to take part in future spelling bees. But, both Nihar and Jairam came to Washington this year to watch.
Jairam says his life has been busy in the past year.
“It was very packed at the beginning with a lot of media tours and events and meeting a lot of people. After that it started to die down.”
Nihar and Jairam were the third co-champions in a row. This year, bee organizers added a tiebreaker test.
The Bee’s final day
Melodie Loya is 12 years old. She is a small, quiet girl from New York. She was one of the 40 spellers who made it to the final rounds on Thursday.
Melodie, who is home-schooled, said she studied up to four hours each day to prepare for the national bee.
“I like with spelling that every word is made of roots, so certain languages are spelled a certain way and I think that’s really cool.”
She covered the walls of her bedroom with the words she misspelled while preparing.
Melodie made it to the sixth round of competition. Fewer than 30 spellers remained. Then, the bee’s pronouncer, Dr. Bailly, asked her to spell the word "subauditur."
Melodie took her time. She asked Dr. Bailly all the permitted questions: language of origin; definition; part of speech, and alternate pronunciations.
Then, she began to spell.
She paused before continuing.
A bee official rang a bell. That meant Melodie had not given the correct spelling. She said “thank you” and walked off the stage to the area where competitors who have lost wait for their parents. Television cameras capture it all up close. Melodie’s eyes filled with tears as she hugged her mother.
Rohan Sachdev, 14, was the next speller up after Melodie’s dismissal. It was his second time competing at nationals. But he said it was his third year to attend the event.
“I was here in the sixth grade, and then last year my brother beat me in the county and so I still came here…I still knew much more than my brother, it’s just I got a tougher word than him. But he’s a pretty good speller, too.”
Sachdev easily made it through round six, and then round seven and eight. And by Thursday afternoon, he was one of 15 spellers left. He finished Thursday night in a tie for 12th place.
The American sports network ESPN carried the final spelling rounds live, just as they do with major sports events. The hashtag #SpellingBee trended on social media.
ESPN’s bee experts had not predicted Ananya Vinay’s win. They favored Texan Shourav Dasari as victor. He was one of four spellers remaining Thursday night when he got the word “Mogollon.”
Without asking Dr. Bailly for any information about the word, Shourav spelled the word in just six seconds. He then returned to his seat before officials even announced he was right.
Social media users said the moment was more exciting than anything in the NBA finals, which were airing at the same time as the bee.
Later, though, Shourav misspelled “Struldbrug,” a word created by Jonathan Swift in his novel “Gulliver’s Travels.” It had no recognizable roots or language patterns to fall back on.
This was Shourav's final year of bee eligibility.
“I was honestly, absolutely shocked. It was stunning,” former speller Jacob Williamson said. “Shourav is one of the greatest spellers of all time and he’s probably the best speller that never won.
I’m Ashley Thompson.
And I’m Caty Weaver.
Ashley Thompson reported this story, with additional materials and reporting from the Associated Press. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
impress - v. to cause (someone) to feel admiration or interest
confetti- n. small pieces of brightly colored paper that people often throw at celebrations (such as weddings and parties)
comfort - v. to cause (someone) to feel less worried, upset, frightened, etc. :to give comfort to (someone)
regional adj. relating to a part of a country, of the world, etc., that is different or separate from other parts in some way
pattern - n. a repeated form or design especially that is used to decorate something
trademark n. something (such as a word) that identifies a particular company's product and cannot be used by another company without permission
alternate adj. other than the usual
eligibility - n. the state of having the right to do something