WASHINGTON — The 80th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee kicked off Wednesday with a record field of preternaturally poised youngsters spelling out, letter by letter, words that most adults have trouble even pronouncing.
Outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel, site of the championship, members of the Simplified Spelling Society carried signs, as they have in previous years, to draw attention to their mission of making English words less complicated and easier to spell.
But inside, the 286 competitors, winnowed down from 10 million who entered contests across the United States and in three U.S. territories and five other countries, had little interest in those demands.
After all, these youngsters, ranging in age from 10 to 15, have mastered the arcane rules of etymology and orthography that allow, for example, the same vowel sound -- but different letters of the alphabet -- in the words "met," "said" and "jeopardy."
In a culture that glamorizes sports figures and tracks, step by step, starlets shopping on Rodeo Drive, sponsors describe the National Spelling Bee as a nationally televised platform that gives academically gifted children their moment in the sun. The semifinals will be broadcast from 1 to 4 p.m. Pacific time today on ESPN, and the finals from 8 to 10 tonight on ABC-TV Channel 7.
"Children want to be recognized," said Paige P. Kimball, the bee's director, who spelled "sarcophagus" correctly to win the contest in 1981. "All too often, children who prefer academics to athletics take a back seat."
Some teachers have criticized the competition. They say that much like the recent emphasis on standardized testing to measure achievement, focusing on putting one letter after another in the correct order has distorted the learning process. But parents and students who have participated in the event say it is a major confidence builder.
"There's an obvious value in improved spelling, grammar and increased vocabulary," Kimball said. "Beyond that, it's poise and grace under pressure. They learn to think on their feet."
Sala Aouad of Terre Haute, Ind., said that although her son, Kennyi, did not speak until he was 5, he had been reading and memorizing words all along. In the fourth grade, he entered a local bee -- and lost. "Kennyi never likes to lose," she said.
Now 11, he said he was excited at the chance to test himself against the best in the nation. "I like competition," he said. "It puts one's skills to the test."
Kennyi not only advanced to today's competition, but he brought down the house in the third round when confronted with the word "Sardoodledom," which means a play with a contrived, overly melodramatic plot. His first reaction on hearing the word was to burst out laughing. The crowd in the 1,100-seat ballroom did the same. Every time the judge repeated the word, the boy guffawed.
With the clock running (after hearing the word, contestants get 2 minutes, 30 seconds before time is called) he had to stifle his giggles to start spelling. When he did so correctly, the audience burst into applause.
For much of its life, the bee was a niche event -- until two things happened to bring it into the mainstream of popular culture.
First, in 1985, Balu Natarajan, a 13-year-old son of Indian American parents, won by correctly spelling the word "milieu." He became an overnight sensation in his ethnic community, and many first-generation Americans came to see the contest as a passport to acceptance in U.S. culture.
Then Hollywood came calling. "Spellbound," a 2002 documentary about the bee, was nominated for an Oscar. A Broadway musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," opened in 2005 to rave reviews. Last year, the feel-good movie "Akeelah and the Bee," starring Laurence Fishburne, told the story of a Los Angeles girl overcoming adversity to compete.
And there was more: Myla Goldberg's 2000 novel "Bee Season" was made into a 2005 movie with Richard Gere. In his 2006 book "American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds," author James Maguire followed five students -- including one, Samir Patel, who is competing this year for the fifth straight time -- from their local contests to the nation's capital.
But on Wednesday, few in the hotel's lobby could be described as nerds. Clustered in groups, mostly with parents, sponsors or coaches, they checked their hair, worried about the competition and traded war stories about previous bees.
"I'm just hoping to get past the quarterfinals," said Katie Nye of Bend, Ore., a first-timer at the nationals. (She fell in the fourth round, misspelling "encolure" -- the mane of a horse -- as "oncholeure.")
Kunal Sah of Green River, Utah, at his second National Spelling Bee, came to Washington with a special mission. His parents, denied political asylum, have been deported to India while the 13-year-old lives with an aunt and uncle in a motel and studies words. Hoping to win so that he can spotlight his parents' plight, he described his goal as a mission "to get to the top."
The first-round written test has 25 questions, each worth one point, and the second-round oral words are worth 3 points each, for a total of 28 points. Contestants need 18 points to advance to the third round.
Sah passed the oral round; his word was "hurdle." But he missed more than 10 questions on the written exam, and will have to wait until next year to compete again.