Alaska speller stumbles on 'pusillanimous'

Posted: Thursday, June 01, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The 13-year-old from the Bahamas couldn't spit out ''marshmallow.'' An Ohio eighth-grader was stopped cold by ''Fahrenheit.'' And for Lillian Mandregan, 14, of Fairbanks, Wednesday's opening rounds of the 2000 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee brought a fainthearted end with ''pusillanimous.''

But though Mandregan bowed out, fellow Alaskan Ruth Hulbert of Palmer was still in the running. The field of 248 contestants in the 73rd bee was cut in half during the first day of the national competition.

Mandregan, a student at Randy Smith Middle School, hesitated in the middle of ''pusillanimous,'' then continued -- but spelled it incorrectly to become the first speller out. The word means lacking courage or manly strength and resolution.

That left only Hulbert, a student at Palmer Middle School, to represent Alaska. The 14-year-old correctly spelled cetacean, leniency and maraschino.

The field of 248 contestants in the 73rd bee was cut to 110 in the first day of the national competition. By the evening, after 10 hours of quizzing, youngsters ages 9 to 15 had mastered -- or tried to master -- 597 words, organizers said. The championship rounds were to air live Thursday, beginning at 1 p.m. EDT, on the cable sports network ESPN.

Amid the tension during the long and grueling sessions in a hotel ballroom, some youngsters found time for humor.

''Can I have a lifeline please? I'd like to call a friend,'' quipped Amy Bitely, referring to the help available to stumped contestants on the television game show ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?''

But when it came to spelling ''halieutics,'' the art or practice of fishing, the 13-year-old from Masontown, W.Va., was on her own. Her answer: ''haleutax.''

Earlier, with her father watching, 14-year-old Christina Wheeler correctly spelled ''scutage,'' a Medieval tax or fine related to military service.

''Our goal was to get past the first round,'' said Robert Wheeler, a computer network engineer from Honeoye Falls in upstate New York. ''Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.''

In fact, his daughter made it through the opening three rounds.

Many of the contestants stumbled on difficult words such as ''duodenary,'' a term for anything containing 12 items, and ''trophallaxis,'' which refers to how social insects exchange food.

But some more commonly used words also sent youngsters to the sidelines.

--Esther Wright, 12, of Columbus, Neb., forgot the letter ''k'' when she misspelled ''maverick.''

--Hilary Jones, 10, of Ocean Springs, Miss., missed on ''ignoramus.'' She spelled it ''ignoramous.''

--Jeff Tamura, 13, of Ramona, Calif., stuffed his hands deep in his pockets and tried with ''giddyness.''

--Amber Owens, 11, of Dyersburg, Tenn., slipped on ''infallible'' when she offered, ''infalable.''

--An audiotape played by the judges was the final verdict for 14-year-old Gladdis Thomas of Pickerington, Ohio: ''Fafhrenheit.'' One too many f's.

''We do start out with very recognizable words, things that most educated adults would find in their vocabularies,'' said Paige Kimble, the bee's director. ''It's hard to second-guess children and what they've been exposed to.''

First-round words come from a 3,500-word study booklet designed by Scripps Howard and from the word lists most sponsors use at their local bees. These words may seem to be among the bee's most difficult, but competition officials and most spellers regard the first round as the easiest because the study guides are the traditional starting point for a speller to prepare for the bee.

In later rounds, words are taken from Webster's Third New International Dictionary and its addenda, which contain more than 460,000 words.

Little Aarthi Arunachalam, 12, thrilled the crowd by conquering her first word -- ''ipsedixitism,'' which means a dogmatic assertion. She survived the opening rounds.

''I remembered what my mom told me about that word,'' said the seventh-grader from North Palm Beach, Fla. ''It was like Dixie cup. I recognized a lot of the words other spellers had, so I was hoping I would get one I recognized.''

The contestants, most sponsored by their local newspapers, all won regional bees to qualify. The top prize is $10,000, a choice of encyclopedias and other awards. Scripps Howard, the newspaper group based in Cincinnati, coordinates the national finals and produces the word lists and study materials.


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