That meant that whoever managed to spell words correctly over the course of three more rounds would earn a share of the championship. And at the end of a dramatic Round 20, not a single speller had fallen. Each of the eight got to celebrate as they escaped the dreaded ding of the bell. Their winning words give a sense of the stunning breadth of word knowledge that they brought with them.
Rishik Gandhasri of San Jose, California, spelled auslaut (the final sound in a word or syllable). Erin Howard of Huntsville, Alabama, spelled erysipelas (an acute skin infection). Saketh Sundar of Clarksville, Maryland, spelled bougainvillea (a tropical woody vine with brilliant flowers). Shruthika Padhy of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, spelled aiguillette (a military shoulder cord). Sohum Sukhatankar of Dallas spelled pendeloque (a pear-shaped glass pendant). Abhijay Kodali of Flower Mound, Texas, spelled palama (webbing on the feet of aquatic birds). Christopher Serrao of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, spelled cernuous (drooping, as a flower). And Rohan Raja of Irving, Texas, spelled odylic (relating to a hypothetical life force conceived in the 19th century). Cue the confetti.
These obscurities were no match for the elite eight, because they had all trained on the most diabolical words to be found in Webster’s Third. Before this year’s bee, Merriam-Webster released an analysis conducted with the language-learning app Babbel that identified the types of words most commonly misspelled at the Scripps Bee. About 48 percent have roots in the classical languages of Greek and Latin, while French and German supply the most frequently misspelled words among modern languages. Yet the eight co-champions were never fazed by any of these linguistic wellsprings, and indeed seemed to be on friendly terms with loanwords derived from Portuguese, Sanskrit, Korean, Irish, and a host of other languages.
As documented in Breaking the Bee, as well as in Shalini Shankar’s new book, Beeline, the training regimen of these elite spellers allows them to zero in on the words that they need to know in order to succeed at both the regional and national levels of the bee. Most of the top competitors have personal coaches, and six out of the eight co-champs used study materials from SpellPundit, a company started by the Dasari family of Spring, Texas. Shobha Dasari, a high-school senior now headed to Stanford, and her younger brother, Shourav, are both recent Scripps finalists. As Shobha told the AP, “It’s all the spellers’ hard work. We just give them the words.”
It’s no wonder that at the end of the evening, the Scripps Twitter account broke the news of the eight-way tie as “Dictionary loses.” (Merriam-Webster followed up: “The Dictionary concedes and adds that it is SO. PROUD.”) But now that the Octochamps have soundly defeated the dictionary, what’s next? Scripps might try to rejigger the rules again, but it’s clear that the bee will never be the same.