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This year's spelling bee is a national cynosure

May 29, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • Aditya Mishra of Lincoln, Calif., waits for his turn during the third round of the National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md.
Aditya Mishra of Lincoln, Calif., waits for his turn during the third round… (Evan Vucci / Associated…)

The battle arena isn’t an ice rink or even a basketball court. Nor are the combatants bigger, faster or outsized in any physical way. But for the 281 children participating in year’s national spelling bee, the competition is as fierce as any sporting event.

The verbal fisticuffs began this week, appropriately televised by the sports network ESPN, which will also broadcast the finals Thursday night. The winner of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee gets more than $30,000 cash and prizes.

In addition to the usual words that leave most adults scratching their heads (such as cynosure, something so brilliant that it attracts attention, or Eocene, one of Earth’s geology periods between 55 million and 33.9 million years ago) there were a number of words that came from foreign roots and have worked their way into popular language in the United States.

“Glasnost,” the period of increased openness that many believe contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by “perestroika,” the word for Soviet attempts to restructure its system as it tried to move from state and bureaucratic control of the economy and political system.

In addition to the Russian words, contestants were able to sport their knowledge of such words as “mandir,” well known to yoga enthusiasts as the word for a Hindu temple, or  “lokshen,” which foodies know is the  Yiddish word for noodles.

The contestants came from all 50 states as well as Canada, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, China, Ghana, Italy, American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the bee’s website. The youngest is 8-year-old Tara Singh of Louisville, Ky. Last year there was a 6-year-old who didn’t make it back this year.

The contest is very much a family affair. Eighteen of the group of 281 have a relative who has made it to the finals.

It is also a case of practice is the best tonic. Sixty-three of this year's contestants have been to the bee before, according to the contest's website.

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