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Scripps Spelling Bee: Zaila Avant-garde Wins

Zaila Avant-garde, the winner of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

The last few words were rattled off fast between the two final finalists, Chaitra Thummala and Zaila Avant-garde.

First was fewtrils (things of little value), which Chaitra got right. Then retene (a crystalline hydrocarbon isolated especially from pine tar, rosin oil and various fossil resins but usually prepared from abietic acid and related compounds by dehydrogenation), which Zaila got right. And finally neroli oil (a fragrant pale yellow essential oil obtained from flowers chiefly of the sour orange and used especially in cologne and as a flavoring).

Which Chaitra got wrong, misstating a vowel.

That allowed Zaila to win it all and become the first Black American student to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She received the word murraya (a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals). Throughout the competition, she appeared to know nearly every word and its origins, smiling each time Jacques A. Bailly, the pronouncer, gave her a new challenge.

As with so many words before, she needed almost no time to solve its structure and spell the word — making her the victor.

Zaila Avant-garde receives “murraya,” another botanical word … and she quickly spells it correctly! Zaila has won!

She misses a vowel! The door is open for Zaila to win.

Chaitra Thummala receives the compound word neroli oil. It gives her pause.

Chaitra steps up. She’s asked if she’s ready for her next word. “I don’t know,” she says, getting a laugh.

Zaila Avant-garde jumps for joy after correctly spelling nepeta. It was the first time tonight we saw Zaila stumped.

Zaila was just confronted with an unusual situation for her: a word she didn’t immediately know, nepeta. It means catmint. She hesitated for a while but spelled it right.

Chaitra correctly spelled haltere, meaning “one of a pair of club-shaped organs in a dipteran fly that are the modified second pair of wings and function as sensory flight stabilizers.”

Zaila Avant-garde seems to struggle with her next word: nepeta. “What do I do with this word?”

After correctly spelling “fidibus” Zaila Avant-garde high fives her opponent, Chaitra Thummala, as she takes her seat.

Zaila Avant-garde correctly spelled fidibus, a word that came to English from German, which took it from Latin. It means “a roll or twist of paper used for lighting pipes.”

Most of these spellers know that for all their preparation, luck plays a role in who receives which word — and in who ultimately wins. When I interviewed Jacques Bailly, the pronouncer, he said that all the winners he’s ever talked to have shown humility and understood that any of the other finalists could have beaten them. As Zaila Avant-garde said: “We’re competing with the dictionary.”

Kory Stamper said she is very impressed with Zaila Avant-garde: “I adore that she keeps basically giving Jacques Bailly the meaning, derivation and language of origin.”

With two competitors left, Chaitra stayed in the mix by correctly spelling consertal, meaning “of a texture in which irregularly shaped crystals interlock.” She asked about a couple of possible roots, the first of which was incorrect, but she got it right in the end.

It’s striking how much camaraderie there is among the contestants. In the past, spectators could always see spellers supporting one another with high-fives and hugs. This year, they’re being kept at a distance but have high-fived each other.

“I thought so,” Zaila said when told that her word, depreter, had an unknown origin. It didn’t throw her off, though. It means “a finish for a plastered wall made by pressing small stones into soft plaster,” and she spelled it right.

Bhavana Madini being comforted by her family after being eliminated from the competition.
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Bhavana was close to spelling athanor correctly, including the schwa in the middle, but tacked on an incorrect E at the end: A-T-H-A-N-O-R-E.

The word, referring to “a self-feeding digesting furnace that maintained a uniform and durable heat and was used by alchemists,” went from Aramaic to Arabic to Latin to English.

“Sir Joseph Fayrer, whose work styled ‘Thanatophidia’ contains the most perfect colored plates and descriptions of the principal venomous snakes, had no fear of them,” The Times wrote in 1888.

After confirming that it contained a Greek root meaning “death,” Chaitra correctly spelled thanatophidia, meaning venomous snakes. She needed very little time.

Zaila Avant-garde after she correctly spelled “duchesse.”
Credit…Joe Skipper/Reuters

Zaila was already guessing at the roots of the word duchesse before she asked for a definition or any other information. It means “a very small cream puff with sweet or savory filling used as dessert or served with cocktails,” and she got it right.

Bhavana Madini continues to be cool and collected. Her word was psychagogic, meaning “of or relating to a method of influencing behavior by suggesting desirable life goals.”

She asked if it contained the Greek root “psych,” meaning soul, and was told yes. She spelled it with no issue.

Kory Stamper, the lexicographer, remarks on how many words have related to hummingbirds, frogs, salamanders, and other flora and fauna: “We’ve had a lot of words from zoology this final.”

We’re down to three finalists remaining, all girls: Zaila Avant-garde, Chaitra Thummala and Bhavana Madini.

Chaitra Thummala correctly spelled regolith, a noun that was formed in English from originally Greek parts and refers to “unconsolidated residual or transported material that overlies or covers the solid rock in place.”

She asked whether it contained the Greek root “lith,” meaning stone. It did.

The schwa strikes again. Dhroov, 12, was tripped up by cloxacillin, where there were two pesky schwas, said Kory Stamper, our guest lexicographer — “the second vowel sound and the last vowel sound.”

Dhroov Bharatia misspells “cloxacillin.”
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Dhroov Bharatia was just eliminated on the word cloxacillin, meaning “a semisynthetic oral nontoxic antibiotic effective especially against staphylococci which secrete beta-lactamase.” It comes from Greek- and Latin-derived elements of international scientific vocabulary.

It was that pesky schwa again: He spelled it C-L-O-X-O-C-I-L-L-I-N.

“I am just very happy with how far I went,” Vivinsha said after being eliminated from the bee. She said the unknown origin of the chrysal was the most difficult element of the word

“What a role model you are to your sister,” the judges tell Vivinsha, who is very close to her younger sister.

Vivinsha Veduru, who just turned 11, flinches as she sees the judge go for the bell.

Vivinsha Veduru misspells “chrysal.”
Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

Vivinsha Veduru was eliminated on the word chrysal, which she spelled C-R-I-S-T-L-E. What tripped her up was that the word, which means a “transverse line of crushed fibers in the belly of an archery bow beginning as a faint superficial line,” had an unknown origin.

Vivinsha Veduru is hit with another word of unknown origin. Chrysal.

It’s Round 3 and we have only four spellers left. That’s remarkable compared with 2019, when there were still eight spellers by midnight.

Zaila Avant-garde sing-songs her way through “ancistroid” with total confidence. She has yet to appear fazed at all.

Zaila Avant-garde after correctly spelling “ancistroid.”
Credit…John Raoux/Associated Press

Zaila Avant-garde didn’t even need to be told the definition of her word, ancistroid. She already knew it meant “shaped like a hook,” and she spelled it correctly with clear confidence and delight.

The longtime pronouncer Jacques Bailly reading a word during the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md.
Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

Judging by his résumé, Jacques A. Bailly is eminently qualified to serve as the official pronouncer of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a job he has held since 2003,

He won the bee in 1980 when he was 14. He received a Ph.D. from Cornell University in ancient philosophy and wrote a dissertation on a pseudo-Platonic dialogue called the Theages.

He is a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Vermont and teaches courses on Plato, Aristotle and etymology. He said he is now learning Old Norse and Sanskrit and likes to garden and “hoard wood.”

But asked how he got the job at the bee, he said simply: “because they asked me.”

Professor Bailly, 55, who projects a calm demeanor onstage and speaks in an even, avuncular tone, shuns showmanship and game show antics.

He said he understands that the bee is as much a media and public relations event as it is a spelling competition, but he believes that the spellers should also avoid trying to become the center of attention.

“They aren’t up there to act,” he said.

Even in the face of the most adorable speller, Professor Bailly remains collected. He never patronizes. He never coos.

When a speller sing-songed, “Howdy, Dr. Bailly,” during the 2016 spelling bee, the pronouncer did not take the bait.

“Howdy, Alex,” Professor Bailly replied in a steady voice.

He said he does not worry about the long-term effects of losing on the children.

“I understand that they think it’s tremendously important and they might cry and all that,” Professor Bailly said. “But I don’t think in the long run that this is going to hurt them. I don’t see any cruelty. I don’t see any meanness.”

As for the winner, victory should not feel like such a seminal event, said Professor Bailly, who has a son, 17, and a daughter, 19.

The winners “are representative of the other spellers who worked really hard,” he said. “Every single one of them that I’ve ever talked to has a very strong sense of humility and said it could have been anyone else.”

When he competed, he recalled how hot and exhausted he felt onstage and “the feeling, as each word was given, of ‘oh, I know that’ or ‘thank goodness I didn’t get that word.’”

When he won, he was relieved that it was finally over.

“I could finally do something other than sit there in the hot TV lights,” he said.

Professor Bailly, who pronounced for the Canwest Canspell Canadian National Spelling Bee “until its unfortunate demise,” and for the Korean National Spelling Bee, said he plans to pronounce for the Scripps indefinitely.

He said: “I will do it as long as they keep asking me.”

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