A $40,000 word!

Published 4:41 pm Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I know you’ve heard the phrase 50-cent word. It is used to describe a word that might not be so familiar. Plus the word that is used is most often long and hard to pronounce. A simpler word would have been just as good and, probably, more easily understood.

People who use 50-cent words instead of those that might cost less, say a dime, are accused of showing off or trying to sound like a big shot. I like words so I don’t always agree that 50-cent words are bad. Most of the time, however, common words explain the situation a little better.

Recently I was called back to Pelham to take part in a Homegoing (as in funeral; there I go using a 50-cent word) service for a former English teacher. She was 96 years old and had lived a full life, so the service was upbeat and fun.

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She had the reputation of being very strict and made all of her students toe the line. There was quite a bit of fear in having Miss Turner as your English teacher.

I asked a classmate about her and he was effusive (could have used generous) in his praise of her. I mentioned the fear factor of having her as a teacher.

“Weren’t you just a little bit afraid?” I asked.

He replied, “Well, I guess there might have been some apprehension.”

He was a top student and he used a 50-cent word, apprehension. I wasn’t apprehensive, I was scared!

Coincidentally, Miss Turner would be appalled at me saying 50-cent word. She made a very determined try at informing us that 50-cent was incorrect. The correct was of saying it was 50-cents with an “s.” I had to say that just in case The Post-Searchlight has a heavenly delivery and Miss Turner might read this column.

I have gone all around my elbow to get to my nose this morning as I talk about 50-cent words. The real point that I want to make is that just a few weeks ago, a 13-year-old Indian-American from Kansas by the name of Kavya Shivashankar won the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee and, in so doing, won $40,000!

What was the word that she spelled that was worth $40,000? I’ll get to that in just a moment, but before I do that, let’s ponder spelling bees.

According to my online dictionary, Wikipedia, spelling bees date back to 1825. There might have been some form of the bee before then, but one of the most popular school books of that time was Noah Webster’s “The Blue-backed Speller.” Webster was a lexicographer, which is simply a 50-cent word that means “I write dictionaries.” His book was a catalyst for competition spelling.

Although the only kind of bee I am familiar with is that buzzing kind, the word bee has in its etymology (can’t help it folks) the notion of getting together, as in quilting bee. Hence competitive spellers got together for a spelling bee.

I remember spelling bees. We had them in the sixth and seventh grades. By the way, in the rules for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a competitor cannot be above the eighth grade. Most participants are either 13 or 14 years old, although some may be as young as 9. No participant can be older than 15.

I am a pretty fair speller and always have been. That doesn’t mean I did all that well in spelling bees, however. There is some pressure involved and that might have gotten to me in the only instance I remember. If you remember the rules, one has to pronounce the word and then spell it. If you say a wrong letter, you cannot go back and change it. No “overnts.” (Marbles?)

The word that I remember misspelling is one that I knew yet I misspelled it. I blame the pressure of the moment and the rules. The word was “citizen.” I knew that word, however, for some reason I began the spelling with an “s.” Can you feel my mistake? The “c” sound in citizen and the “s” sound is the same. I said “s” and it didn’t matter that I realized my mistake. As soon as I finished, I tucked my tail between my legs and sat down.

Back to Miss Shavishankar from Kansas. Wasn’t Dorothy from Kansas? How did someone with the name Shavishankar get to Olathe, Kan., 20 miles southwest of Kansas City? I guess she practiced for the spelling bee by spelling her name. Shavishankar. S-h-a-v-i-s-h-a-n-k-a-r. Shavishankar. Whew!

I know that you want to know what word Miss S spelled to win the 40 grand, but she had to spell some doozies to get there. Remember, any word missed throughout the competition is a sit-downer. We might think of the final word as the word worth $40,000, but any of these words could have been an eliminator.

Her first word was disciples. If the pressure wasn’t too bad, I could get that one. The next one, though, could have been a problem. The word was mesophilic. Could you say pronounce the word again? Mesophilic. Mez-e-fil’-ik. Could I have a definition, please? It is an adjective that means “growing or thriving best in a moderate temperature.” Could I have a sentence, please? “The bacteria that causes pneumonia is mesophilic.”

I probably would not have gotten past the second word, but if I did, here are some of the other words Miss Shavishankar spelled to get to the final winner. No. 6 was escritoire. Escritoire is the 50-cent word for desk.

If you got past that one, the next word was hydrargyrum. You may know that one (or not) as the 80th atomic number. It is quicksilver. Let’s go through the next three. The words are blancmange, baignoire and huisache. I’m sure you knew all those. But, I know what you are really waiting for. The final word, the one which she had to spell to win $40,000.

If you’ve read The Revelation and its letters to the seven churches in Chapters 2 and 3, you might actually get this one. The word was Laodicean. It means lukewarm or indifferent in matters of religion or politics.

Congratulations to Miss Shavishankar! I mean if you have gone through life having to spell that name, a word like Laodicean is a breeze.