OXON HILL, Md. – Confidence on the Scripps National Spelling Bee stage manifests itself in subtle ways, like spellers asking questions even though they know the answers.
Dev Shah, one of 11 spellers who made it through Wednesday's semifinals and will return Thursday to compete for the winner's trophy and more than $50,000 in cash and prizes, was given the word “Perioeci” and quickly eliminated any suspense with his onstage banter.
“Does this come from the Greek ‘peri,’ meaning around?” Dev asked.
“Yes,” said the Rev. Brian Sietsema, the bee's associate pronouncer.
Dev: “Does this come from the Greek ‘oikos,’ meaning house?”
Asked, and answered.
The finalists made their way unscathed through eight rounds — five spelling, three vocabulary — and Dev was one of a handful who never looked flustered.
The semifinals in particular were a triumph of efficiency for Scripps and its word selection panel, perhaps aided by a first-of-its-kind, pre-bee standardized test that allowed Scripps to assess the spellers' abilities. Of the 55 quarterfinalists, 33 were eliminated in the first spelling round of the semis. The word panel followed through on its plan to make the vocabulary questions more fair than last year's; only two were dinged on definitions. And then in the final spelling round of the semis, nine of the remaining 20 misspelled.
Given that nearly everyone who competes in the National Spelling Bee — even several recent champions — ultimately misses a word, the default posture for spellers is nervous, flustered, defensive. Even the most well-prepared kids know the bell could ring at any time.
“It's very obvious when I don't know the word,” said another finalist, 14-year-old Pranav Anandh of Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. “I'll panic a little. It takes me a second to get my head back together.”
A handful of spellers have flashed some real swagger: 2021 champion Zaila Avant-garde and 2019 runner-up Simone Kaplan wowed audiences by reciting dictionary definitions nearly verbatim. In 2017, fourth-place finisher Shourav Dasari had a viral, mic-drop moment when he spelled “mogollon” in 5 seconds, turned around and strode back to his seat. Zaila, also a basketball prodigy, recently published a book, “It's Not Bragging If It's True.”
Dev, a 14-year-old from Largo, Florida, flexes his knowledge so casually that it may escape notice.
Given the word “exhortation” in the quarterfinals, Dev asked, “Can I have all the alternate pronunciations?” In other words, he already knew the word had multiple alternate pronunciations.
“To be fair,” Dev later told The Associated Press, “the word ‘exhortation’ isn't the rarest word out there. It wasn't that bad of a word. I'm not complaining.”
Dev explained that he doesn't have a formulaic approach to asking questions. He will generally ask about a word's roots, definition and language of origin. If he repeats a question, he's seeking reassurance.
“I never ask for a sentence, though. That's just me,” Dev said. “It depends on the word, but a sentence is just a stalling tactic.”
Scott Remer, who coaches six of the finalists — Dev, Pranav, Dhruv Subramanian, Shradha Rachamreddy, Arth Dalsania and Sarah Fernandes — instructs his pupils to pace themselves and ask any question that might be helpful.
“Generally speaking, the kids who ask more questions are the kids who know more, actually, which is maybe counterintuitive,” Remer said.
Sometimes, spellers even perform a bit of rope-a-dope — Pranav and fellow finalist Charlotte Walsh said they sometimes intentionally ask about roots they doubt are part of a word, because the “no” answer can be just as helpful.
Sticking to a routine, even if the speller knows a word right away, can keep spellers relaxed and prevent flubs.
“There's a certain confidence that comes from having kind of a checklist. You're not floundering on stage. You know what you need to do, you know when you need to do it, and it is a procedure that you can follow to analyze the word and break it down methodically,” Remer said. “I think that method really helps, especially when you're under pressure.”
The other finalists were Surya Kapu — who also made the 2022 finals — Aryan Khedkar, Vikrant Chintanaboina and Tarini Nandakumar.
Although she was eliminated in the semifinals, 13-year-old Kavya Jakasaina of Jersey City, New Jersey, had the demeanor of a veteran speller — which she isn't. She only got serious about spelling after she lost her school bee last year.
“Rather than panicking and looking all nervous, I'd rather, even if it's my last word up there, at least manage it gracefully and proudly,” Kavya said. “Spelling comes to me naturally, so I kind of feel at home here.”
Head judge Mary Brooks took note while bidding Kavya farewell.
“Your word that advanced you into the (semi)finals was ‘ethereal,’” Brooks said, “and it can also describe the graceful poise you've spelled with.”
Ben Nuckols has covered the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 2012. Follow him at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols