Spelling Bee: 11 finalists compete for trophy

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — A spelling bee week that began with curiosity and angst over a new vocabulary test was set to end the familiar way — with bright kids spelling difficult words under the bright lights of prime-time television.

The 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee inched round-by-round toward a conclusion Thursday night, with 11 finalists remaining from the 281 contenders who arrived to compete for the title of champion speller of the English language.

The field was whittled down from 42 semifinalists Thursday afternoon, with spellers advancing based on a formula that combined their scores from a computerized spelling and vocabulary test with their performance in two onstage rounds.

The winner takes home $30,000 in cash and prizes and, of course, the huge cup-shaped trophy.

The favorites included 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali of New York, who finished third each of the past two years. Cracking his knuckles as usual, Arvind methodically worked his way through the medical-related terms “intravasation” and “erethic.”

“I’m not nervous,” said Arvind, who admires Albert Einstein and wants to become a physicist. “Because I think it’s good to maintain composure.”

A win by Arvind would continue the recent tradition of Indian-American winners. There have been five in a row and 10 of 14, a run that began in 1999 when Nupur Lala captured the title in 1999 and was later featured in the documentary “Spellbound.”

The show-stealer during the semifinals was 14-year-old Amber Born of Marblehead, Mass., who has wanted to be a comedy writer ever since she saw the pilot to “Seinfeld.” The bee’s growing popularity is reflected in an ESPN broadcast that gets more sophisticated each year, so Amber got to watch herself featured on a televised promo that also aired on the jumbo screen inside the auditorium.

She then approached the microphone and, referring to herself, deadpanned: “She seemed nice.”

The crowd laughed and applauded. Amber turned serious once she heard her word — “pediculicide” — but she spelled it correctly and did a little hop as she headed back to her seat.

In the next round, Amber asked pronouncer Jacques Bailly: “Please give me something I know.” Given the word “malacophilous” and told it means “adapted to pollination by snails,” she replied: “I don’t know if that’s possible.”

She hid her face with her placard, trying to visualize the word. When she guessed the correct spelling, she leaped all the way back to her seat and advanced to the finals.

“I had two choices,” she said, “and I picked the right one.”

Pranav Sivakumar, 13, of Tower Lakes, Ill., in his final year of eligibility, greeted Bailly in Latin and was relieved to make it past the semifinals after missing a word in the same round in both 2011 and 2012.

“I don’t think I’m nervous anymore,” Pranav said. “The semifinals was always the stumbling block for me.”

One finalist had a chance to make history by completing the first pair of siblings to win the bee. Vanya Shivashankar, 11, of Olathe, Kan., made the finals in her bid to emulate her sister, Kavya, who won in 2009.

“I was nervous in competition,” said Kavya, who is enrolling at Columbia University this fall. “But watching her is a completely different experience. It’s actually more nerve-wracking.”

The buzz at this year’s bee was the introductory of vocabulary for the first time. Some of the spellers liked it, some didn’t, and many were in-between, praising the concept but wondering why it wasn’t announced at the beginning of the school year instead of seven weeks before the national bee.

“It was kind of a different challenge,” said finalist Vismaya Kharkar, 14, of Bountiful, Utah. “I’ve been focusing my studying on the spelling for years and years.”

There were two multiple-choice vocabulary tests — one in the preliminaries and one in the semifinals — and they were administered in a quiet room away from the glare of the onstage parts of the bee. The finals would look the same as always: No vocabulary, just spellers trying to avoid the doomsday bell.

The first vocabulary test had some words anyone would know, such as “tranquil,” but the second one included stumpers such as “anacoluthon” (definition: a syntactical inconsistency within a sentence).

The computerized tests did produce a couple of hiccups, but, ironically, they came from the spelling portion that has been around for years. When 13-year-old Nikitha Chandran and her parents pointed out that “viruscide” was an OK variant of “virucide,” it gave her an extra point that put her into the semifinals after she was initially told she didn’t make the cut.

On Thursday, Nikitha correctly spelled “demurrage” and “peristalith” to make the finals.

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