These days, it's a softball word for the best of the 286 spellers gathering in the nation's capital for the 80th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. The competition begins Wednesday and culminates with a prime-time Thursday night finish on ABC.
The young competitors have spent months poring over word lists and dictionaries in an attempt to answer one nagging question: What strange word is Carolyn Andrews going to come up with next?
"It is tricky," said Ms. Andrews, who has the daunting task of finding competitive words for the bee. "What's easy for one person might be difficult for another."
Ms. Andrews, whose son won the bee in 1994, has been the word list manager since 1998, leading a three-person panel that spends the year looking for words in likely - and unlikely - places. One year she added "cloisonne" (an enamel process used to make jewelry) after spotting it in a mail order catalog.
"There is no objective way to evaluate the difficulty level of words," said Paige Kimble, the spelling bee's director.
Last year's winner, Katharine Close, 14, of Spring Lake, N.J., said she didn't know some of the words that knocked out her competitors.
"It's just a matter of luck that I didn't get those, and I got words that I did know how to spell," she said.
Two years ago, Samir Patel wasn't happy when he finished second after missing the word "Roscian" (pertaining to acting) while his opponent correctly spelled "appoggiatura."
Appoggiatura (a type of musical note) looks uglier in print, but Roscian - with its capital letter - is one of those dreaded proper adjectives, words based on names that don't always follow the usual rules of structure.
The spellers have plenty of resources to give them a head start. The bee's Web site has a Consolidated Word List of 23,413 words from previous bees, and Ms. Andrews writes a 36-week course of study aids. But the only complete source for study is the unabridged Webster's Third New International Dictionary, which contains more than 470,000 entries.
The spellers know that as the competition nears the end, more words come out of left field, words like "weltschmerz" (a type of mental depression), which stymied the runner-up last year.
"Obviously, the competition can't go on forever," Ms. Andrews said. "That's how you get a champion - by making the words more difficult."
THE BUZZ ON THIS YEAR'S NATIONAL BEE
- Spellers: 286
- Gender: 139 boys (48.6 percent) and 147 girls (51.4 percent)
- Age: 11 10-year-olds (3.85 percent) 28 11-year-olds (9.79 percent) 66 12-year-olds (23.1 percent) 105 13-year-olds (36.71 percent) 75 14-year-olds (26.22 percent) 1 15-year-old (0.35 percent)
- Grade: 2 fourth-graders (0.7 percent) 23 fifth-graders (8.04 percent) 36 sixth-graders (12.59 percent) 88 seventh-graders (30.77
percent) 137 eighth-graders (47.9
- School type: 192 public (67.13 percent) 38 private (13.29 percent) 36 home (12.59 percent) 14 parochial (4.9 percent) 5 charter (1.75 percent) 1 virtual (0.35 percent)
- Hometown favorite: Ben Stewart, 13, a home-schooled student from Evans, will represent Georgia in the national bee.