Kenneth Curry was first out, stumped by combustible.
The 10th-grader was one of nine students competing last week in a vocabulary bee at Venice High School. Held in the cafeteria, the war of words had the structure of an old-fashioned spelling bee. Each student was asked to define one of a list of words, many of which had been part of the school's word-of-the-day program. Students who failed were eliminated.
Kenneth's discomfort was obvious as he groped unsuccessfully for another way to say combustible. Afterward, he confessed that he hadn't studied his word list the night before. "We all forgot it was today," he said of the contest.
Offered to Next Contestant
Fellow contestant Adam Bray-Ali was done in by tortuous. "Something that tortures you?" the 10th-grader guessed. Bena Jaffe, a former teacher who served as quiz master, said she was sorry but that was wrong. The word was offered to Bryn Mowry, also a 10th-grader, who decided to take it. "Winding and twisting," she answered correctly.
Every school day, a vocabulary word is posted at Venice High. In recent months, the words have included such stumpers as exoteric ("suitable to be imparted to the public") and opsimath ("a person who begins to learn late in life"). Youngsters who demonstrate that they can use the daily word in a sentence win candy bars and other treats.
According to teacher Beverly Broger, who helps choose the word of the day, it is a painless way to help students build their vocabularies, if only to help them when they take the Scholastic Aptitude Test. "We'll do anything we can to get them to read more and learn vocabulary words," Broger said.
Last week's bee pitted the school's most faithful daily-word participants against the dictionary. A stereo, not a Snickers bar, was at stake. The stereo and several smaller prizes had been bought with an $800 grant from the Los Angeles Educational Partnership's Small Grants for Teachers program, won by Broger and her colleagues.
Tenth-grader Susanna Wu was confronted with theocracy. "Is it something involving the theater?" she asked, frowning. Wu sat down, abashed by her failure to remember that a theocracy is a government ruled by a god.
When only three players remained, Jaffe began giving them words they hadn't had a chance to study. Ninth-grader Sukaina Merchant stumbled on incredible. "It's so embarrassing," she said. Bryn, next up, asked: "Can I have that word?" Jaffe nodded yes. "It's something that's beyond belief," Bryn said.
Finally, it was just Bryn and 11th-grader Troy Gilchrist. Troy almost tripped on the word sacrifice but saved himself by using it correctly in a sentence. Bryn defined accelerate , "to move faster and gain speed."
Troy was given the word encumbrance . It proved indeed to be "a burden or impediment"; he failed to come up with that definition. Now only one correct answer stood between Bryn and the prize. Offered encumbrance, she exercised her option to define another word instead. She triumphed with obnoxious.
After the bee, the players and the students in the audience ate frozen yogurt donated by a Venice merchant.
'Harder in Front of People'
Player Robert Farag noted that coming up with definitions "is much harder to do in front of people, when you know your friends and your teachers are looking at you."
A 10th-grader, Farag had aced calumniate , with the definition "to say a false statement," only to be undone by contemporary .
Winner Bryn, 14, said she was going to give the stereo to her mother. "I have a little ghetto blaster of my own," she said.
Bryn said she is not a big reader, but she does think a rich repertoire of words is useful. "Sometimes it's hard to express your thoughts if you don't know a certain word."